Librarians fight back against anti-abortion terrorism

A new type of terrorism is stalking the United States. Development agencies are so scared of being accused of promoting abortion that they’re trying to make the very word invisible, even in a data-based used only by academics and other nerds.

USAID employees trawling POPLINE, a database used by demographers and researchers in reproductive health, found two articles dealing with abortion advocacy, which they say did not fit the database’s criteria. And so POPLINE administrators made “abortion” an invisible search term, like the words “the” or “a”. The move was spotted by librarians at UCSF, who raised hell. Eventually, the clamour reached the ears of Michael Klag, dean of the school of public health at Johns Hopkins University, which houses the database. He made abortion visible again, double-quick.

My question is: why are US taxpayers paying salaries for people to trawl through 360,000 articles to find two that may be “not consistent with the cirteria”? Was it USAID staff who were doing this work? Or was the work done for them by some lobbyist group, producing a knee-jerk response of self-censorship? That was what happened back in 2003, when the Traditional Values Coalition made lists of federally funded research dealing with offensive people such as sex workers and drug users. It was after they passed these lists to Congress that NIH started calling researchers in to justify themselves and their previously-approved studies. And after that that some researchers just decided not to do, or not to publicise, research that Congress considers icky.

I suspect that the terrorists have succeeded, as good terrorists do, in trapping us in great round of fear. POPLINE staff restrict abortion as a search word because they fear they will lose USAID funding. USAID trawls through databases in search of abortion-related wickedness because it fears it will lose Congresional funding. But USAID can only lose funding if Congress decides to cut its funding. And Congress is made up of men and women who, at least ostensibly, want to please the constituents who vote for them. So Congress will only cut funding for USAID if it fears voters will throw them out if they spend money on useful databases of 360,000 articles, two of which talk about abortion advocacy. Since the majority of members of Congress are Democrats, that seems like an unlikely outcome.

It’s time that Democrats in Congress started to realise that when they’re making public health policy, they’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself. They should not leave it to librarians to defend democracy in the United States.

(If any kind librarian can point me to two offending articles now removed from POPLINE, I’d be agog tp read them).

This post was published on 06/04/08 in Ideology and HIV.

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