Temporary fencing placed in front of the US Supreme Court building, which is in the background
Temporary fencing placed in front of the US Supreme Court building, which is in the background

Scientists Predict “Brain Drain” From States That Ban Abortion

Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, numerous researchers have announced plans to either vacate or decline career opportunities in states where abortion is or will soon be illegal.

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Dan Robitzski

Dan is a Staff Writer and Editor at The Scientist. He typically works on the news desk and joined the team in 2021. He has a background in neuroscience and earned his master's in science journalism at New York University.

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Jun 30, 2022

ABOVE: Barricades surround the United States Supreme Court building. © ISTOCK.COM, DOUGLAS RISSING

On Friday, June 24, the United States Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court ruling that for decades protected abortion rights throughout the country. Soon thereafter, protesters took to the streets en masse. Meanwhile, numerous researchers declared via social media that they will either try to leave or decline to accept job offers in the 30 US states where abortion is currently or may soon be illegal.

For example, prominent University of Utah neuroscientist Bryan Jones posted Friday evening that “As of tomorrow, I am on the open market. A well funded, internationally successful scientist is accepting offers from academia and industry in order to leave the state of Utah, taking my team of neuroscientists if they chose to leave with me. I will not endanger my team.”

A post-Roe “brain drain?"

That tweet went viral, garnering hundreds of supportive responses and prompting other researchers to make similar vows. Jennifer Fouquier, a computational bioscience graduate student at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, tweeted about an exchange with a recruiter who’d reached out to encourage her to apply to a job in Texas. Fouquier ultimately declined, noting that the lack of reproductive rights offered by the state would make it unsafe for her. “There were people that said I was using my privilege to avoid these places, but I feel like it would have been more privileged to not say anything,” Fouquier tells The Scientist. “I was trying to do my best to take a stand to support people in these areas because I don’t feel like the Roe v. Wade reversal is the right decision.”

Fouquier, who emphasizes that she speaks for herself and not her lab or institution, adds that in her personal network, many other women have expressed similar sentiments. “It’s just been really difficult seeing all of my friends realize that they have less opportunities now because they don’t feel comfortable relocating to these places,” she says. Ultimately, she predicts that a “brain drain,” or a mass exodus of academics from states where abortion is banned, is likely to occur in the coming years—a sentiment shared by many of those who replied to her and Jones’s tweets. Similarly, in a recent Twitter poll conducted by The Scientist, 70 percent of the 41 respondents said that abortion bans would affect their decision to work in a particular state.

“I feel like there’s going to be a huge decrease in talented individuals applying to academic and [industry] positions in those areas” where abortion is illegal, Fouquier says. Not only does that mean fewer opportunities, but “it will also make the opportunities in the locations we feel safe in more competitive. So overall, it’s going to create challenges on both sides—less opportunity and more competition, which is just going to set women back even further.”

See “Gender Gap in Research Output Widens During Pandemic

Indeed, University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison researcher David Shaffer tells The Scientist he worries that he and others at his university will struggle to recruit faculty and students, as a Wisconsin state law from 1849 that bars abortion is now in effect.

Before Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that required all US states to recognize same-sex marriages, Shaffer says that some applicants to UW-Madison would ask about domestic partnership policies when determining whether or not the university and the area would be a good fit for them. “I don’t see why this would be dramatically different,” he says.

Shaffer recently tweeted something similar to Jones, indicating that he was also open to being poached. He tells The Scientist that while he was partially tweeting in jest to indicate his “thorough displeasure” with the ruling, he would seriously consider leaving: “Part of it was a really legitimate concern about my ability to do the work I do here, because of a concern regarding who we’ll get as faculty and who we’ll get as students,” he says, adding that if abortion were banned in Wisconsin back when he accepted his current job, he might have reconsidered his decision. “I can’t imagine that I would show up at a place and not be concerned about access to medical care,” Shaffer adds. “It’s as simple as that.”

Adjusting to a post-Roe world

It’s unclear how many scientists will follow through with their stated plans to leave and avoid abortion-banning states or to leave the country altogether, and it may take years for the effects to emerge in enrollment and hiring data. Many may find such declarations impossible or infeasible to act upon. Amanda Meshey, a cancer biology graduate student at the University of South Florida who tweeted in 2019 that she would leave the country if Roe v. Wade was overturned, tells The Scientist over email that, despite the great personal risk she now feels, she and her husband don’t have the financial freedom to pack up and leave. Additionally, she says that doing so would mean abandoning both of their PhDs altogether.

“We are both first generation graduate students, so this journey means a lot to both of us and having to give that up would be heartbreaking,” Meshey writes. “That being said, we are both actively seeking opportunities outside of the US for after we complete our PhDs.”

An editorial published in Nature following the Supreme Court’s decision suggests that research institutions in areas where abortion and reproductive care are banned ought to take four steps to address the safety and wellbeing of their students and staff: provide support to those directly affected by the decision; ensure the continuation of research into reproductive health; continue to offer comprehensive medical education for physicians, including the teaching of abortion procedures; and advocate for evidence-based abortion policy, as many institutions, including Fouquier’s, have done in the days since the ruling.

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However, Fouquier says there’s not much that universities in states where abortion is banned can do to entice her or others who feel the way she does. “They can claim to provide support for women who might need these healthcare services out of state, but the reality is an emergency abortion is an emergency abortion, and nothing that they can do will truly provide safety for women in these states,” she says. “Trying to entice women with high salaries to try to go to these places is bordering on unethical when you know that it can affect our safety.”

As she looks ahead to future job searches, Fouquier says she’ll be “doing more research about the states that I’m willing to relocate to”—but she suspects that won’t be enough to ensure her sense of safety. “It’s also frustrating that we have to try to think about where our rights will be in the future in the states that are currently safe. Do I have to do research on the next politicians in these states? Is that now my responsibility?”

Meshey says that she’d like to see efforts on the part of universities and research institutes “to educate the public about the [life-]saving healthcare that abortions provide, and I want to see action to restore rights to people with uteruses, so that our existence isn’t distilled down to being an incubator.”

She adds, “I don’t really know how much power universities have to skirt [the] legislature, but providing resources, supporting and upholding the privacy of individuals with uteruses when they seek help, and figuring out a way to push back would be an excellent start.”