Álvaro Bernis

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At the dawn of May 2022, health researcher Liz Mosley was attending a celebration dinner marking her initial day as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine when the news surfaced: An unauthorized version of the Dobbs verdict uncovered the Supreme Court’s scheme to dismantle abortion rights in the United States—the “most undesirable scenario,” as one diner expressed.

Mosley was also concerned that the ruling would disrupt her scientific research. She and her peers were in the midst of conducting a study on the viewpoints of Americans towards pregnancy, which encompassed interviews and a questionnaire surveying 550 pregnant individuals aged 15 to 49 across the nation about the options they had considered. Some reproductive health clinics in Texas, where she had planned to recruit participants—and where SB 8, an extraordinarily stringent state regulation, was already making providers anxious—became hesitant. “We had to abandon Texas as a research location,” she informed me. “The clinics mentioned that the legal jeopardy for their patients was highly significant.”

The destruction of reproductive health services has been extremely severe in the past two years following the Dobbs ruling. Abortion is now proscribed (or almost entirely so) in a minimum of 17 states, numerous providers have ceased to provide abortion services, and a myriad of clinicians have departed from conservative states. Additionally, one more consequence post-Roe: the obstacles faced by public health researchers like Mosley have escalated. Research related to abortion has encountered delays, constraints, and obstacles at a moment when comprehending the scenario is of utmost importance.

“The clinics mentioned that the legal jeopardy for their patients was highly significant.”

Some of the research delays are due to genuine concerns for the participants. In Pennsylvania, where abortion is lawful but constrained, Pitt’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), an ethical committee overseeing research at the institution, urged Mosley to modify her research design, mentioning concerns regarding data confidentiality and the potential of interference by law enforcement. She accepted significant changes, mostly involving excluding minors from the interviews. “You can envision that was a substantial setback,” she expressed. Research indicates that teenagers may stumble upon their pregnancies later than adults and face exorbitant challenges in accessing healthcare due to financial and logistical barriers. Currently, Mosley mentioned, it is more challenging for her team to determine the optimal way to assist pregnant minors and evaluate the “long-term health and social ramifications” of their life choices, whether it pertains to abortion, adoption, or parenting.

In 2023, Mosley conducted a different survey, this time targeting her peers: In an inquiry, around two dozen reproductive health researchers recounted their encounters with their respective institutional review boards. Most reported encountering some sort of obstacle, such as confusion concerning state statutes, heightened scrutiny of abortion-related initiatives, and a minimum of one research individual’s absolute incapacity to receive project approvals. Mosley explains that even studies not overtly linked to abortion were affected by Dobbs. Some universities, for instance, currently mandate “full board review” for any research involving pregnancy.

Moreover, previously accessible statistics—such as the count of abortions in each county in Georgia, for example—have been removed from official websites, and obtaining precise detailed data is “significantly more arduous,” Mosley mentions. (A spokesperson from the Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed that local abortion data was eliminated last year following “a legal assessment,” but mentioned that state-level records remain accessible).

Sociologist Tracy Weitz, who delves into reproductive health at American University in Washington, DC, informed me that a portion of the most beneficial data for understanding health disparities, such as the racial background, ethnicity, and postal code of patients, was historically furnished by states hostile to abortion, where anti-abortion legislators implemented data collection as a regulatory requirement for abortion facilities. However, with abortion now outlawed in such territories, the majority of the data has evaporated.

Even in liberal states, providers are exhibiting more hesitancy in divulging specific demographic facts, or even collating them—Illinois and Maine, for instance, have ceased gathering certain details. “That information becomes crucial when trying to ascertain who, in the post-Dobbs era, is undergoing abortions and who is not,” Weitz indicated. (It is also imperative for aiding policymakers in comprehending the repercussions of their decisions.)

One solution entails anonymous surveys, although they come with their own set of challenges. During a 2023 seminar held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, University of Wisconsin reproductive health researcher Jenny Higgins stated that fictitious individuals, or “bots,” provided approximately 3,000 responses to one of her surveys over a weekend. Subsequently, her team had to invest hours in assessments regarding data quality and engage a data scientist to “separate” ineligible participants.

Researchers also expressed that obtaining a “confidentiality certificate” from the National Institutes of Health has become more challenging—a title that can safeguard delicate informationcollected during a research project from being legally demanded. An inquiry by the agency now involves asking researchers if they have confidentiality agreements with third-party companies like Zoom and Microsoft, ensuring those companies do not disclose participant data. However, technology firms have minimal motivation to make such a commitment. (The NIH maintains there have been “no modifications” to its authentication policy since its inception in 2017.)

One positive aspect: Dobbs has triggered an “all hands on deck” situation and increased curiosity in the field.

The work environment hasn’t been entirely negative,” according to Diana Greene Foster, a demographic researcher and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, whose research review board has expedited studies on abortion. In her view, Dobbs has led to an “all hands on deck” situation and an increased interest in the field. In preparation for the decision, Foster initiated a project to analyze the experiences of individuals who sought abortion just before bans were enforced in certain states, comparing them to those who sought abortions subsequently. She notes that the preliminary findings suggest a lower-than-expected number of individuals who were unable to access abortion, possibly due to their ability to procure abortion pills online.

However, the overall feedback from researchers indicates a desire for greater backing from the federal government. Mosley believes that universities require “cohesive” guidelines instructing research review boards to expedite abortion research and aiding researchers in evaluating legal and social risks for participants across different regions. Weitz emphasizes the necessity for protection against legal demands. Currently, there are no federal statutes automatically safeguarding the privacy of abortion seekers whom researchers interview remotely via telephone, email, or video conferencing.

On a more foundational level, researchers seek for the government to standardize the examination of abortion, which has been historically underprioritized due to societal stigma. The White House has urged Congress this year to allocate funds for a $12 billion plan supporting “women’s health research”—though it remains unidentified which studies will qualify. Meanwhile, Weitz points out that privately funded academics and journalists have predominantly shouldered this responsibility. She asserts that abortion is a healthcare matter, and the government is “obliged” to analyze it on par with any other significant public health concern in the United States.