Thursday, April 3, 2008

When ‘Abortion’ becomes 'Fertility Control, Postconception'

Is has often been observed that if one wants to change the world, you change the categories of the world first – the American government has been pretty good at this tactics in recent years. A student in my class brought forward a recent example, which I think is quite telling – there is ravaging discussion [here, here, here, here] about POPLINE’s recent decision to make “Abortion” a stopword. Yes, a stopword, like: a, an, and the. POPLINE, an American service, is on their website described as “(POPulation information onLINE), the world's largest database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues.” -- and they have “recently made all abortion terms stop words.” The reason is that: “As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now. In addition to the terms you're already using, you could try using 'Fertility Control, Postconception'. This is the broader term to our 'Abortion' terms and most records have both in the keyword fields. Also, adding 'unwanted w2 pregnancy' in place of aborti*. We have a keyword Pregnancy, Unwanted and there are 2517 records with aborti* & unwanted w2 pregnancy.” Now, of course, there is a significant difference between “Abortion” and “Pregnancy, Unwanted” as POPLINE’s scope notes indicates (yes, correct, these are technically not *scope notes*, but *definitions* – but let’s take that fight with them another day…)

So this begs the question… when do we include some concept in a controlled vocabulary; we have usually talked about “warranty” (user, literary, structural, domain, etc.) – however, this example highlight a more important principle – the ethical dimension of KO. Regardless of whether one agrees with the politics behind removing the abortion category and thereby eliminating the concept from the vocabulary; one needs to ask what is wrong and what is right in this regard – and more importantly, one needs to ask, who or what determines what is wrong and right. I’d assume that POPLINE has decided that Bush and the American government is the ethical authority and that their doctrine decides what is wrong and right. Regardless of that fact that I think it is nuts to remove the term; I actually applaud POPLINE for taking a stand and suffer the consequences for this stand. I can think of many, many controlled vocabularies (Dewey, LCSH, for instance…) which are equal offensive, but are less open about their politics. POPLINE will, apparently, make a statement re this in a few days – it is going to be interesting to see if they actually are going to say something of substance and make ethical commitments.

Classifications are political instruments… all classifications make epistemological, ethical, and political statements; there is nothing new to this. The library blogshere seems to argue that POPLINE’s move is unprecedented and unacceptable… get a grip; what is the ethical assumption behind Dewey’s religion section? I don’t see any ethical justification in the introduction to LCSH…

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