The global abortion field has a murky understanding of the impact of abortion laws. With legal epidemiology, legal and scientific researchers can together produce a clearer view of the relationships between laws and public health outcomes. Scientists study public health with a required degree of rigor, while the global study of abortion laws and how they impact public health outcomes remains less developed. Global abortion researchers tend to focus on the circumstances in which abortion is legal as the independent variable when investigating public health outcomes. Other provisions such as who is authorized to provide abortions—particularly in countries where health care professionals are inaccessible—may have an even greater impact. But gaps in evidence of impact persist.
Legal epidemiology, broadly, and policy surveillance, specifically, offer theories and methods that researchers can apply to the study of the impact of abortion laws on public health outcomes. The World Health Organization took a giant step toward making abortion laws accessible through the Global Abortion Policies Database; policy surveillance would add rigor and enable researchers to study laws over time.
A better global understanding of the relationships between abortion laws and public health outcomes is urgent, as a growing number of people experiencing displacement and an increase in the practice of self-managed abortion complicates the impact of law. With good evidence on the relationships between laws and public health outcomes, people working to improve abortion access can more precisely target their efforts and resources to improve the health and lives of people who have abortions.
Patty Skuster is Senior Legal Advisor, Technical Innovation and Evidence, Ipas.