There is a pretty disturbing article in the April 5, 2008 issue of NY Times that describes government censorship of a database search function. Johns Hopkins University, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, manages a population database known as Popline. Popline, according to the Times, is the “world’s largest database on reproductive health”. It contains more than 360,000 records and articles related to family planning, fertility, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Hopkins recently disclosed that it had programmed its computers to ignore the word “abortion” as a search term. Excuse me…a database on articles related to reproductive health and you can’t search for articles with the word abortion! (Typing “abortion” into PubMed reveals almost 64,000 peer-reviewed articles on the topic.)

Here is the reason for the censorship: Popline is funded with money from the Agency for International Development (AID). The Bush administration has made it clear that not one red cent of AID money is to be used to promote abortion. Evidently, someone from the Agency accessed Popline and found “two articles about abortion advocacy” in the database and demanded that they be removed from the database as they did not fit database criteria. What??

As you can tell, I am (almost) speechless over this. I don’t care which side of the abortion issue you are on, you should be outraged that Hopkins felt they had to censor a search term in order to comply with AID funding criteria.

Ted Miller, a spokesman for Naral Pro-Choice America got it right when he said,

“The public has a right to know why someone would censor relevant medical information. The Bush administration has politicized science as part of an ideological agenda. …It’s important to know if that occurred here.”

What is going on in our country when the electronic equivalent of book burning is promoted by a government agency? This is 2008, not 1508! Shouldn’t our scientists (and the public) be free to learn about, discuss, debate, and, otherwise, explore any topic related to personal and public health?

The end of this story is positive, thank heavens. The dean of the Public Health School, Dr. Michael J. Klag, learned about the censorship and lifted the restriction. He has also pledged to launch an inquiry to determine why the censorship occurred in the first place. Thank you, Dr. Klag…be sure you let us know when you figure out what happened.

Let’s hope the age of politicizing science will be coming to an end soon (say, January 20, 2009) and please, let’s be vigilant in our efforts to prevent it from ever recurring. Censorship has no place in science.

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