Perils and Possibilities: Reflections on the Use of Scientific Evidence in Abortion Court Cases and Why the Public Health Community Should Care

Emily Maistrellis, Victoria Chia and Alicia El Yamin (2016)
Harvard FXB Center Working Paper

As state legislatures across the United States usher in health-justified abortion restrictions, courts are increasingly called upon to analyze the effects of these laws on women’s rights, and to evaluate the role that empirical evidence should play in this analysis. Examples from a systematic review of 70 state and federal cases challenging the constitutionality of abortion restrictions from 2011-2015 illustrate perils and possibilities for the consideration of scientific evidence in abortion cases. Overall, courts do not take a uniform approach to incorporating public health and medical evidence into their analyses of burdens imposed by abortion restrictions on women’s health and lives, which leads to varying normative constructions of rights, and gross abortion access inequalities across the country. More concerted efforts are required among public health researchers and advocates to ensure that scientific methods and findings are understood by courts and subsequently translated into rulings that affect women’s lives.