Amazon accused of anti-abortion bias

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Amazon, the online bookseller, has been thrust centre-stage in the American abortion debate as pro-choice groups expressed anger that customers typing in "abortion" were offered listings on adoption.

The company was forced to defend itself against suggestions it had given a political slant to results from its supposedly neutral search technology.

Campaigners complained that requests for information on abortion generated the response "Did you mean adoption?" at the top of the page. They expressed their suspicion that Amazon was tampering with its search results to appease pro-life groups, and expressing what appeared to be an "editorial position".

Amazon has hurriedly taken down the question but continues to risk the ire of pro-choice groups because adoption is still listed as a related topic. Customers are not offered listings on abortion when they search on adoption.

Members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a pro-abortion group, raised the issue with Amazon. Rev Jeff Briere, said he continued to believe that the abortion books suggested by an Amazon search "seem to be pro-life in orientation". Three of the top 10 suggested books have a pro-life slant.

Rev Briere told Amazon the "Did you mean adoption?" question was offensive. It is also highly sensitive at a time when bullish pro-lifers are hoping to reopen the whole question of abortion's legality in the US.

Earlier this month, South Dakota passed a law to make abortion illegal, challenging the Supreme Court to re-examine the pivotal Roe v Wade case that legalised terminations. George Bush's conservative appointments to the court have, they believe, offered the best opportunity in a generation for overturning the 1973 ruling.

Pro-life groups expressed anger that Amazon had apparently altered its search technology at the instigation of pro-choice campaigners by taking down the "Did you mean adoption?" query. Anti-abortion websites are urging readers to contact Amazon with their views.

An uncomfortable Amazon was yesterday fighting off suggestions of bias. The "Did you mean adoption?" query had been randomly-generated, it insisted. It said it was based on a user's previous search requests, likely related topics and the similarity of spelling between abortion and adoption, which triggered its spell check software.

Amazon's internal search tries to generate product suggestions that a customer might buy. Analysts believe these "impulse buys", based on previous purchases and similar users' shopping habits, account for more than 10 per cent of sales.

Amazon insisted its results reflect the popularity of products and it would not tamper with the complicated mathematical algorithms.