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Editorial: The decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade has the potential to erode decades of DEI gains in the sciences

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 30, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 24


On June 24, the US Supreme Court determined that “the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion,” overturning the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision that had established the nationwide right. The ruling effectively gives states the power to make their own laws on abortion, and many immediately banned or severely restricted reproductive care.

Organizations such as the United Nations condemned the ruling: a panel of UN human rights experts described it as “a monumental setback for the rule of law and for gender equality.” In a press release, the UN experts point out that the court’s decision disregards the US’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which establishes the right of women to make autonomous decisions about their own bodies and reproductive functions. The experts say the ruling comes “at a time when many countries have . . . liberalized their abortion laws to respect and uphold women’s human rights to life, health, equality and non-discrimination, privacy and freedom from violence and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

In the wake of the decision, a number of corporations—including Gilead Sciences, GSK, and Sanofi—issued statements committing to continuing to provide comprehensive health-care benefits to employees. Many have guaranteed that their employee health insurance plans will support family planning and have offered to pay for time off and travel and medical expenses for people requiring out-of-state procedures.

Beyond the political ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision, legal battles are likely to ensue, with implications for pharmaceutical companies and the US Food and Drug Administration regarding access to medicines. In a post for his In the Pipeline blog, medicinal chemist Derek Lowe lays out the complexity of “the drug regulation part of this story.”

Lowe starts by explaining the biology behind the drug combination that is currently used to chemically induce more than half of the abortions performed in the US. The treatment, which is approved in the US for use within 70 days from a person’s last menstrual cycle, involves administration during a 48-hour period of mifepristone followed by misoprostol. Mifepristone shuts down the effect of progesterone, a hormone that is essential for pregnancy. Misoprostol is a synthetic prostaglandin that induces dilation of the cervix and muscle contractions.

With states now expected to restrict or block access to these drugs, US attorney general Merrick Garland issued a preemptive strike, saying in a statement that “states may not ban Mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment about its safety and efficacy.” Court challenges are likely to come. Lowe goes into more detail in his blog, and I recommend you read it. In any case, the danger for pharmaceutical companies is that if a precedent is established giving states the ability to sidestep the FDA, the same may happen for other classes of drugs.

There are also social ramifications that cannot be ignored. From the point of view of the chemistry enterprise, removing options for reproductive care is likely to affect the ability of pregnant individuals to pursue chemical education or scientific work and to advance in their careers. The Turnaway study, a longitudinal study on abortion, showed that women who had been denied an abortion had “three times greater odds of being unemployed than those who obtained abortions and had four times higher odds of being below the federal poverty level,” according to an editorial in Science by one of the authors of the study.

More broadly, this change to reproductive rights is a blow to progress in diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect—core values of the American Chemical Society, C&EN’s publisher—and has the potential to erode decades of work toward achieving gender equity in science in the US.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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