Dr. Nancy Berglas on State and Local Health Department Activities Related to Abortion

Nancy Berglas, DrPH

At JPHMP, our mission is to advance and disseminate impactful, practice-based evidence to inform initiatives and policies to improve population health. The public health researchers, academics, policy makers, and practitioners who contribute content to the journal support this mission and strive to improve public health for all communities through their research.

We sat down with Nancy F. Berglas, DrPH, to discuss her article “State and Local Health Department Activities Related to Abortion: A Web Site Content Analysis” published ahead of print in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

JPHMP Direct:  What motivated you to conduct this study?

Nancy Berglas, DrPH: In recent years, states across the US have enacted various laws that require governmental health agencies to take on new and different roles in relation to abortion. We wanted to know: How are state and local health departments engaging with a politically controversial issue like abortion? What types of abortion-related activities are state and local health departments doing? Who determines abortion-related activities at state and local health departments?

JPHMP Direct:  What did this study involve?

Nancy Berglas, DrPH: This is the first study to systematically examine the abortion-related activities of state and local health departments. We searched the websites of all 50 state health departments and more than 100 large local health departments for evidence of activities related to abortion. We identified nearly 7000 documents and categorized them according to a common public health framework – the 10 Essential Public Health Services – to understand the range of health department activities related to abortion.

JPHMP Direct:  What did you find? Were any of your findings surprising?

Nancy Berglas, DrPH: We found that, while most state health departments engage in activities related to abortion, this involvement largely reflects what the law requires. It wasn’t surprising to find that state health departments are following the law. What was surprising is that state health departments rarely engage in activities beyond what is legally required. We didn’t see evidence of health departments engaging in the full range of core public health activities in how they addressed abortion. For example, nearly all state health departments were involved with data surveillance and enforcing state laws, which are legally mandated activities. Education and referral materials were developed for compliance with state informed consent laws specific to abortion, rather than broader health promotion efforts. Few states engaged in workforce development around abortion, and none showed evidence of innovative research or best practices.

JPHMP Direct:  What are the conclusions of the study?

Nancy Berglas, DrPH: The expertise and experience of public health professionals are devalued when health department policies and activities are dictated by law rather than public health expertise, principles, and evidence. This study raises important questions about the role of public health agencies and professionals in defining how health departments should be engaging with abortion. Additional research is needed to assess whether abortion-related activities meet quality standards for public health services and determine how best to support governmental health agencies in their growing tasks.

JPHMP Direct:  What’s next related to this field?

Nancy Berglas, DrPH: It is time for public health professionals to engage in constructive dialogue about how to define and implement a vision of how health departments should engage with abortion, based in public health principles and rooted in scientific evidence.

To read the this article, visit http://journals.lww.com/jphmp/Abstract/publishahead/State_and_Local_Health_Department_Activities.99556.aspx

About Nancy Berglas, DrPH, Public Health Social Scientist

Nancy Berglas, DrPH, is a public health social scientist at ANSIRH. Her research interests center on issues of adolescent sexual health and rights, the evaluation of school-based sexuality education programs, access to sexual health services, and the use of evidence in the development of sexual health programs and policies. Dr. Berglas’ prior research has included the conceptualization, measurement and evaluation of new frameworks for sexuality education that integrate issues of sexuality, gender equality and human rights. Her current work with ANSIRH focuses on the use of research evidence in the development of abortion facility standards and the effects of state-level abortion restrictions on women’s lives. Dr. Berglas received her undergraduate degree from Brown University, her MHS from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and her DrPH from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.