Online Program

How judges adjudicate scientific claims-making in challenges to abortion restrictions

Monday, November 4, 2013 : 11:30 a.m. - 11:45 a.m.

Tracy A. Weitz, PhD, MPA, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, University of California, San Francisco, Oakland, CA
Elizabeth Chen, JD, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Washington, DC
Introduction: State legislatures are increasingly using scientific arguments to justify abortion regulations. In the prior two years over 100 laws have passed limiting how abortion care is provided or funded. Abortion rights supporters have challenged many of these laws in either state or federal courts. Judges have issued decisions in which they adjudicate the science involved in these challenges. Methods: Four predominately scientific-based regulations were selected: gestational bans based on presumed fetal pain, suicidal risk counseling requirements, ultrasound viewing mandates, and protocol specifications for mifepristone/misoprostol use. Content analysis is conducted of lower, appellate, and state supreme court decisions for the 12 legal cases challenging these regulations between 2007-2012. Results: Both abortion rights opponents and supporters make scientific claims in legal challenges. Across decisions, the same scientific studies are adjudicated differently suggesting there are no consistent standards for how science is or is not incorporated into legal decisions. In some cases, one set of scientific studies is seen as better or worse and judges use the conclusions of those studies to justify their decisions. In other cases, judges point to the existence of scientific disagreements as reasons to not using science in the decisions and instead defer to legislative authority. Discussion: Scientists hope their research will have a positive influence on public policy. However in politically-contested fields such as abortion, adjudication over science is often conducted by judges untrained in scientific methods or medical practice. This research suggests that ideology often substitutes for science in court decisions regarding abortion restrictions.

Learning Areas:

Public health or related laws, regulations, standards, or guidelines
Public health or related public policy

Learning Objectives:
Describe abortion care regulations passed using science-based justifications Explain how the same scientific studies are accepted and rejected in differing court decisions Assess the limitations of having courts be responsible for adjudications of science in politically-contested arenas

Keyword(s): Abortion, Health Care Politics

Presenting author's disclosure statement:
Organization/institution whose products or services will be discussed: This paper describes the evidence-based protocols for the use of mifepristone and misoprostol in early medication abortion.

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I studied law, and am an advocate for reproductive health, rights, and justice. I have written on reproductive rights and public health issues.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.