We are scientists, and we believe that evidence, not ideology, should inform health care decisions. The wave of anti-abortion laws across the U.S. is the latest in a long string of attempts to falsely use the language and authority of science to justify denying people their basic human rights and inflict lasting harm. Although abortion is still legal in every state, recent legislation in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio threatens the future of abortion rights in the country. Scientists should, first and foremost, value evidence, and the evidence is clear: abortion bans cause harm. They make abortions less safe and especially harm historically marginalized communities.
As scientists, we are uniquely positioned to use our privilege and position in society to speak against the new abortion bans and other public policies that threaten the reproductive freedom of our nation’s people. We have the knowledge to communicate the science of reproductive health care, demonstrate the harm restrictive laws will cause and hold decision makers to account.
The public officials behind these latest abortion bans exhibit breathtaking ignorance of the science of their own proposals. When asked when a woman would still be able to obtain an abortion under his near-total ban, Alabama State Senator Clyde Chambliss uttered “I’m at the limits of my medical knowledge, but until those chromosomes you were talking about combine—from male and female—that’s my understanding.” The lawmaker is clearly confused about the fundamentals of reproductive science, but that hasn’t stopped him from authoring the most restrictive abortion law in the country—one that threatens the health of his constituents.
So-called heartbeat bills, which ban abortion as early as after six weeks of pregnancy, are not based on science. In fact, no heart yet exists in an embryo at six weeks. Yet six states and counting enacted such bills in 2019, in addition to Alabama’s near-total ban. Equally unscientific “abortion reversal” laws are also gaining traction. These laws, now on the books in eight states, require doctors to tell patients receiving a medication abortion, a safe and effective way to end an early pregnancy, that it can be reversed halfway through to save their pregnancy.
Not only is this law bad science, it is actively dangerous. The idea of abortion reversal is based on a single study of six participants that was (poorly) conducted without an ethics review board. The so-called abortion reversal procedure is experimental and has neither been clinically tested nor approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Both heartbeat bills and abortion reversal laws have been opposed by leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Our Complacency Is Complicity
As scientists, it is our job to assess the evidence, and what we know from many countries, including the U.S., is that that restrictions to reproductive health do not stop abortions but make them less safe. In addition, attempts to limit access to legal and safe abortion violate basic human rights and increase unsafe abortions. These abortion bans will cost lives—period. Existing restrictions in more than half of U.S. states already limit access to timely and affordable abortions, and these new laws would take such constraints to new heights. For example, miscarriages may be “investigated” and prosecuted under the recent law passed in Georgia. Because one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, such scrutiny would undoubtedly target and further traumatize people already dealing with the loss of a pregnancy.
The elected officials passing these laws are not concerned with medical expertise or scientific evidence. They actively misrepresent the work of scientists, using rhetoric to deceive the public and stoke emotional outrage. These abortion bans are ideological and cynical, they are appallingly unscientific, and they are dangerous. We need leaders who will use science to create a safer world for all, and we, as scientists and citizens, need to hold them accountable when they don’t. It is time for scientists to show up and use our voices, money and positions of privilege to push back on these oppressive and harmful abortion bans.
For too long, scientists have been afraid to wade into controversies because we were taught to believe that being outspoken would chip away at our perceived public credibility. But our persistent silence has made us complicit. Anti-choice groups continue to invoke science in support of their cause. Case in point: this year the March for Life, a protest against the practice and legality of abortion, falsely claimed that science is on the side of the anti-choice movement.
In the past, as we stood on the sidelines, science was misrepresented and weaponized to harm people. We must not only face the historical legacy of that harm but also realize that the same tactics are being used today to perpetuate oppression. And we have to vow to break our silence. The time is now. We must stand in solidarity with health care workers, activists, organizers and all who fight for reproductive justice and human rights—today and every day.
Reckoning with Science’s History of Harm
Unfortunately, these latest laws build upon a long history of racist and misogynistic policies that invoke science to justify the control of people’s bodies and to specifically target women and members of marginalized communities. The “science” of eugenics was used to justify sterilizing women of color and disabled people for decades. The long-disproven practice of conversion therapy is still used today in an attempt to change people’s sexual orientation. Even the scientific understanding of women’s biological roles as mothers and nurturers continues to be twisted to defend the patriarchy, leading some to continue to argue that the subordination and domesticity of women is somehow the “natural” moral order of the world.
It is worth remembering that historically marginalized people have long suffered directly at the hands of science. The inventor of the vaginal speculum performed horrific experiments on enslaved women. A government experiment spanning decades allowed hundreds of rural African-American men with syphilis to go untreated. And the HeLa cells that revolutionized modern medicine were taken from a poor, African-American woman as she was dying of cervical cancer without her consent or any kind of compensation for her or her descendants.
It is no surprise that the modern anti-abortion agenda itself is grounded in racism and shoddy science. The long history of using science to demonize black women and justify laws that exert control over their bodies equates to institutionally sanctioned violence. Although scientific research has provided the world with much good, it has also caused harm to countless individuals, especially people of color and sexual and gender minorities. This is a truth we must confront and a history we must not repeat.
Marginalized People Will Be Disproportionately Affected by Restrictions to Reproductive Health Care
The negative effects of restricting access to safe and affordable reproductive health services will not be evenly felt. The efforts to ban access to abortion affect all people who can get pregnant, but they create additional risks for low-income women, women of color, trans men and genderqueer people, as well as victims of intimate-partner violence or sexual abuse, who are already navigating a health care system stacked against them. Long-established restrictive laws, such as waiting periods, parental-consent requirements, state-mandated counseling and conditions for hospital admitting privileges, have imposed disproportionate barriers to reproductive freedom for these groups for decades.
Marginalized people who want to end their pregnancy may feel unsafe disclosing this information or even seeking the help they need because of the stigma or the risk of violence. Women of color already face appalling maternal mortality and infant death rates. By minimizing access to safe abortions, these women and their children will be subjected to additional risks of death and injury.
None of the recent laws include provisions for emotional, community or financial support for parents and babies. Forcing people to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, especially without addressing the multifaceted challenges associated with bringing a baby into the world, will only worsen the mental and physical health disparities and socioeconomic challenges for groups already disproportionately affected by these struggles.
Access to reproductive health care is not a women’s issue—it is a human rights issue. Everyone benefits when people have access to health services and when they have autonomy to start their families on their own personal timelines.
Now Is the Time to Act
What can and should scientists do? Follow the lead of groups who have been on the front lines of these issues. Women of color have been leading the movement against this latest onslaught of policies that limit access to safe reproductive health care, as well as the reproductive restrictions that came before. Ongoing organizing and legal action by these groups, especially in the American South, have helped ensure greater access to reproductive care for those living in states with barriers to abortion access. Local groups, such as SisterSong, SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, Access Reproductive Care–Southeast and Feminist Women’s Health Center, and national groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, need support to continue their work in the face of new bans. We should listen to these organizers and follow their example.
You should donate money if you can, but you can also help in many other ways. You can participate in local direct actions, including marches, educational events and organizing meetings. You can also volunteer to help transport or house women who need to travel long distances for an abortion or become an abortion clinic escort or abortion doula. You can even act as a medical model and help educate health care professionals on how to provide comfortable, affirming and culturally-competent reproductive care for all people.
And men, your efforts are especially welcome: here are some tips. We need to know that we are not alone in this fight.
Supporting on-the-ground initiatives is critical, but we must also look within our own research programs and consider the potential negative impact of our work and the ways it may affect vulnerable people. If you are involved in any human studies, think carefully about their design to ensure that harms to vulnerable communities are minimized and work to make sure that the benefits of your research are also just and equitable. If you are in a position of gatekeeper, prioritize the funding, publication and dissemination of research that is guided by justice and equity. As an instructor in the sciences, ensure that you are providing your students with the tools to understand and evaluate scientific information but also respect and acknowledge other ways of knowing.
Use your position of authority to advocate for evidence-based sex education in your local schools and science-based decision-making from your local public officials. Do not be afraid to use your voice and your power.
You can educate yourself and others on the reproductive justice movement here, here and here.
And if you or someone you know are currently struggling to access abortion care anywhere in the U.S., you can find more information here.