May 20, 2024


Science It Works

Abortion Rights Are Good Health and Good Science

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to make a huge mistake.

If the leaked draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a true indication of the Court’s will, federal abortion rights in this country are about to be struck down. In doing so the Court will not only side against popular opinion on a crucial issue of bodily autonomy, but also signal that politics and religion play a more important role in health care than do science and evidence.

For almost 50 years people in the U.S. who have needed to end a pregnancy have had a legal right to do so. Accessibility and affordability have always been barriers, and anti-abortion lawmakers have chipped away at this right, set forth in Roe v. Wade, but the ability to get a safe and legal abortion before fetal viability was settled law.

The new decision would strike down Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an opinion that overturned a Pennsylvania law that required a pregnant married woman to notify her husband in order to obtain abortion services. Many states, mainly governed by conservative lawmakers, have already passed or are planning to introduce laws that either ban abortion outright or put such severe restrictions on this medical procedure that it will be practically impossible to legally end a pregnancy. Some states will make criminals of doctors and other health care providers who perform abortions. Some laws set to go into effect after a Supreme Court ruling would deny people the right to end pregnancies that happen after rape or incest, or that pose grave medical dangers. These laws are contrary to all relevant science, and any health-related claims used to support them are demonstrably wrong.

In passing these laws, anti-abortion legislators often claim that abortion harms people who are pregnant. In a landmark study from the University of California, San Francisco, scientists found the opposite: denying people abortions led to worse mental and physical health, as well as financial stability. The Turnaway Study looked at about 1,000 women who were seeking abortions, and followed them for five years. Some were just early enough in their pregnancies that they got the procedure, and others were turned away because their pregnancies were slightly past the legal cutoff where they lived. Women who had abortions reported fewer mental health issues, even years later, and their most common reaction was relief. Women denied abortions often experienced brief declines in mental health and higher anxiety.

Women denied abortions were more likely to end up poor, unemployed or receiving government assistance, even though before they asked for an abortion they were in a similar financial place as women who were able to get one. This study, and others, tell us what will happen in a post-Roe world, when people are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term because they are denied a most basic form of health care and the ability to make decisions about their own bodies. Access to abortion largely appears to have very positive effects on people’s lives.

The fight against abortion rights is often depicted as a religious mission, but not all religions or religious believers oppose abortion. We note that these political moves are part of a long-standing effort by some conservative Christians, as well as anti-abortion politicians and activists.

By forcing people to have children when they don’t want to, these ideologues strip women of political and earning power, in some cases making them dependent upon men. By forcing people to have children when they are not financially secure, these laws prolong patterns of poverty. And the states with the most restrictive abortion policies often have the worst social safety nets, the worst maternal mortality rates and the greatest health care inequities.

This ideology denies the dangers of pregnancy, despite the fact that in some U.S. states maternal mortality approaches that of some developing nations. Some of the abortion restrictions states have passed are pegged to an early stage of pregnancy. But the biological and genetic problems that lead to complications with pregnancy are too numerous to list, and too variable from person to person to assign a deadline to. Gestational age cutoffs, “heartbeat” laws and total bans go against the basic workings of human biology.

Regardless of how they legally justify their ruling, the justices of the Supreme Court who choose to strike down abortion rights are telling the American public that science doesn’t matter, that evidence can be ignored. High courts have similarly said as much in striking down mask and vaccine mandates during the COVID pandemic. The logic of Alito’s draft—the right to an abortion is not in the Constitution—could apply to all reproductive health, including the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision that overturned a law banning birth control. The highest court in the land must value evidence and respect best medical practices, and yet the conservative majority clearly doesn’t.

President Joe Biden and other pro-choice elected officials have said they will work to protect abortion rights. There are legislative means to ensure some degree of abortion access. But with our current federal legislature and the filibuster in place, getting the needed votes to pass measures protecting abortion will be difficult, if not impossible. We hope lawmakers will see abortion rights as an issue that makes it necessary to break through legislative roadblocks.

As our Supreme Court is poised to radically constrain the lives of so many people in the U.S, we applaud those states that are strengthening their abortion protections. We applaud those people who are continuing to fight the legal and practical battles for our right to health care and our right to privacy. And we applaud the health care workers—the doctors, the nurses, the medical assistants—and the volunteers, donors and programs that help people who are pregnant care for themselves and their health. Safe and accessible reproductive health care is a basic right that is supported by science, medicine, and respect for human dignity. Everyone should have access to it.