For scientists, Roe’s end raises concerns about personal safety and professional choices

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on 24 June, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion and handing decisions about abortion access to state legislators, the response across the polarized country was swift, dramatic, and divided. Many scientists decried the decision as a potentially deadly violation of human rights. “Abortion bans will kill people in lots of different horrible ways,” tweeted Amanda Stevenson, a researcher who studies abortion at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Some scientists also began to ask how the decision will affect the research community, especially in states that ban or severely restrict abortion.

“It’s going to really negatively impact science … if we have scientists actively avoiding half of this country, or all of it entirely,” says Rosa Lafer-Sousa, a neuroscience postdoc based in the Washington, D.C., area who is considering how the ruling will affect her upcoming faculty job search. She and others expressed fear that the lack of an abortion option would create hardship for aspiring scientists who become pregnant. “I really worry that it’s going to affect people’s ability to write their own destiny,” says an M.D.-Ph.D. student at a university in Texas who requested anonymity.

The Supreme Court’s reversal will likely be felt most strongly in groups that are already underrepresented in science, says Nicole Williams, the outreach director for the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists. “Being an African-American woman, and just knowing the stats—that Black birthing persons already experience high levels of pregnancy-related mortality—the overturning of Roe versus Wade is a death sentence for Black women scientists and birthing persons.”

These concerns have some scientists reconsidering their career plans and stance on where they’re willing to live and work. The Texas M.D.-Ph.D. student, for example, is considering leaving once she finishes her program because of the state’s strict abortion laws. “It’s really hard. … I love Texas,” she says. Many other researchers across genders and career stages shared similar stories on social media, saying they would be leaving or not pursuing professional opportunities in abortion-restricting states.

Those seeking faculty positions face particular challenges, Lafer-Sousa says, because “you don’t have a ton of choice about where you end up in the first place, and now there’s even less choice if you cut out half the states and say, ‘Well, I’m not willing to live there.” But ultimately, she doesn’t think she’d feel comfortable recruiting trainees to join her in a state that doesn’t grant them reproductive autonomy. As a second-year Ph.D. student, she became pregnant unexpectantly after her contraception failed. Her subsequent decision to end the pregnancy was relatively easy, she says, because she wanted to focus on her education—and she wants that same freedom for others. “Being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term during graduate school would have posed a significant burden on me and potentially derailed my career plans,” she says.   

Faculty members already established in affected states are wrestling with similar questions. “I had to take a mental health day just to process everything that happened and deal with the emotions,” says an assistant professor in a biomedical field who is based in a southern state where abortion is now illegal in nearly all cases. Speaking with Science on the condition she remain anonymous, she’s particularly concerned about students at her university who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and may not be able to afford to travel to another state if they need an abortion. “Will I ever have to … send a student of mine to a ‘conference’ in California?” she wonders. “Is that something that I need to start thinking about?”

She’s not sure she wants to stick around to find out. But whether to leave her position is a hard decision. She’s the only racial or ethnic minority in her department and she feels she could have more impact where she is than in more liberal states—”both in terms of my votes, but also in the mentoring and support I can provide the underrepresented minority trainees that exist here,” she says. “I’m Latina. I’m a woman. And in science, both of those identities are not well represented.” But come fall, she’ll likely start applying for faculty positions elsewhere. “The fear for my safety and my wellbeing—and even more so than that, that of my students—it weighs really heavily on me.”

Some university administrators have issued statements expressing support for their students’ and employees’ reproductive rights. The M.D.-Ph.D. student, for instance, says her school administrators sent out an email assuring the community that trainees and faculty will be supported to the extent possible. But other universities have remained silent, frustrating academics who want to know their employer is paying attention to the issue. The southern professor, for example, hasn’t received any emails or statements from her university. It “pisses me off,” she says.

Scientists have also called on their professional societies to take action, particularly regarding conference locations, with some proposing boycotting meetings in states that ban abortion. Others have pushed back on that idea, saying it will only harm the scientists in those states. But others argue that stance fails to consider attendee health and safety. “Any person capable of childbearing could have an emergency related to pregnancy at your conference,” Northwestern University neuroscience postdoc Ana Vlasits tweeted. “Your event should not be held in a place where your childbearing colleagues might be put at risk.”

Those concerns make sense to Catherine Alves, a social scientist based in Rhode Island who is currently 38 weeks pregnant. Last year, she had a miscarriage and made a “tough call” to take the drug misoprostol to help her body expel the fetal tissue. Her situation wasn’t an emergency, but other pregnancy-related complications that are often treated with abortion drugs, such as ectopic pregnancies, can be fatal if they aren’t addressed quickly. It’s not clear whether those drugs will continue to be prescribed in emergency situations in all states. “As a pregnant person,” Alves says, she wouldn’t feel comfortable attending conferences in locations where, if something went awry, “I couldn’t get medical care that I needed and that reflects my values.”

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