June 24, 2022, will go down in history as the date thatthe US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, which had protected a woman’s right to have an abortion. Abortion is now heavily restricted or even banned outright in nine states of the US, and this number is projected to rise to more than 26. This is a big setback for those fighting for women’s rights and gender equality; the implications for women’s health, maternal mortality, infant mortality, poverty, and socioeconomic equality in the US are serious, and there is much discussion and debate on this decision not just in the US, but worldwide.
The Response from Research Societies
It was heartening to see that scientists and scientific bodies across the US and other countries were quick in condemning the dismantling of Roe v. Wade. The journal Nature, for instance, declared outright in an editorial that the verdict was a “tragedy.” The American Medical Association stated that they were “deeply disturbed”, terming the decision “an egregious allowance of government intrusion into the medical examination room, a direct attack on the practice of medicine and the patient-physician relationship, and a brazen violation of patients’ rights to evidence-based reproductive health services.”
In addition, the board of directors of the American Urogynecologic Society issued a statement that they oppose “any ruling that restricts a person’s access to health care and criminalizes the practice of medicine.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) also called the SCOTUS decision “a direct blow to bodily autonomy, reproductive health, patient safety, and health equity.”
These sentiments were echoed by international bodies like WHO, which termed the decision a “set-back”, adding that “All women should have the right to choose when it comes to their bodies and health.” The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics went so far as to say that this decision would “cost lives for years to come.”
What Can Research Societies Do Now?
Research societies can play a very significant role in influencing policymakers and stakeholders and can lead the way for the rest of the scientific community. First, universities and societies need to issue statements expressing support for their students’, staff’s, and members’ rights to reproduce.
Second, societies should consider the comfort level of researchers and the challenges that they face. For instance, scientists have called on societies to re-consider conference locations and have proposed boycotting those locations where abortions are banned. Some argue that this could affect the researchers already working at such locations, but others agree that this boycott is the need of the hour for the medical safety of those who may be pregnant and visiting these locations for conferences only to find themselves facing a medical emergency. In fact, Northwestern University neuroscience postdoc Ana Vlasits tweeted “Your event should not be held in a place where your childbearing colleagues may be put at risk.” 38 weeks pregnant and as someone who has suffered a miscarriage before, Catherine Alves, a social scientist is in agreement with Ana. In an interview with Science, she stated “As a pregnant person, I wouldn’t feel comfortable attending conferences in locations, where, if something went awry, I couldn’t get the medical care that I needed.” Of note, ACOG has already dropped the idea of hosting its 2023 annual conference in New Orleans, citing Louisiana’s restrictive stance on abortion.
Third, research societies can support advocacy for public policies that are based on sound scientific data. They can partner with trusted non-profits and citizen groups, to make their cases stronger in the eyes of the public and policymakers. Societies can create brief, non-technical summaries of existing scientific evidence in support of or against various legislations, which can be used to communicate with political bodies. They can also offer scientists training in and opportunities to engage in political advocacy. For example, societies like the American Society for Radiation Oncology organize annual “Hill Days” in Washington D.C., where researchers can meet with lawmakers and their staff. The American Society of Hematology provides free training to members on how to advocate effectively in matters related to hematology research and patient care.
Fourth, societies should encourage scientists to continue to collect evidence in support of public access to safe reproductive healthcare, and to collate data that can inform public policies related to reproductive rights. Societies, especially those in the biomedical and social sciences, can encourage and facilitate such evidence-gathering, by setting up themes for conferences, poster sessions, or panel discussions, as well as special issues in their society journals.
And finally, the overturning of Roe v. Wade showed scientists that any kind of research could have far-reaching implications. Dr Giandomenico Iannetti, a neuroscientist in the UK, had no idea that his research findings on pain and the human brain would be manipulated in US anti-abortion arguments to “prove” that a fetus can suffer pain before 24 weeks. In an interview with The Guardian, he firmly stated that this interpretation of his work is “an unjustified leap”. The same could happen in other fields. A nanochemistry paper might influence environmental policy, a plant biology paper might influence public health policy, or an endocrinology paper might influence education policy. Research societies can play a key role in improving public scientific literacy, so that fewer laws and public policies can be based on distorted and misinterpreted science. For example, by producing and disseminating textual summaries, press releases, infographics, or videos explaining new research in non-technical language, societies can exert some control over how these findings are presented to and understood by the public. Social media platforms are a powerful tool the societies can use for promoting science–public dialogue and engaging lay audiences in science.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade does not affect only women of childbearing age. The SCOTUS verdict has far-reaching implications for the scientific workforce as well as how scientific research is conducted, shared, and applied, and its effects will be felt for years to come. Research societies therefore need to strengthen their efforts to improve public understanding of and trust in science, so that future policies and legislation are based on sound scientific evidence.