The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating why a government-funded, reproductive health database operated by the Johns Hopkins University briefly blocked searches using the term abortion two weeks ago.
The POPLINE database is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and run by Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. Bloomberg's dean ordered all searches restored after he learned that an administrator had made it difficult to find abortion-related scientific material on the POPLINE Web site. The restriction lasted several days.
"I am concerned that the restriction of certain search terms in the POPLINE database is an ideological decision and not in line with the spirit of free scientific inquiry intended by the creation of such a database," Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, wrote in a letter yesterday to USAID's administrator.
The congressman requested the names of the officials who were involved in the decision to make abortion a "stop word" - one that a search engine will ignore. He also asked for records related to the incident, as well as an explanation of whether USAID rules allow database operators to restrict certain search terms and a list of all USAID-funded databases maintained by nongovernment entities.
Dingell sent a similar letter to Dr. Michael Klag, dean of the School of Public Health. Klag restored the search term after learning what had happened and ordered an internal inquiry into Hopkins' role.
Some research librarians and others who were concerned about the restriction on abortion searches said they were worried that it might have been politically motivated. Under federal policy, USAID denies funding to nongovernmental organizations that perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.
When the first public questions were raised about the search limitations, officials at Hopkins said that POPLINE administrators had been asked by USAID to remove two citations from the database that the agency regarded as advocating abortion.
After that inquiry, database administrators not only removed the offending citations but made changes that would ignore future searches for the word abortion.