UW CORE: Working toward Reproductive Health Equity Amid a Rapidly Changing Reproductive Policy Landscape

At the Collaborative for Reproductive Equity (CORE), CDE affiliate Jenny Higgins leads a team of scholars that conducts high-quality, rigorous, policy-relevant, and community-engaged interdisciplinary research on reproductive health and healthcare, both nationally and locally within Wisconsin. Through their research, CORE investigators aim to inform and improve reproductive health programs and policies throughout the state.

Higgins, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and gender and women’s studies, has spent her career conducting mixed-methods research on sexuality, gender, and reproductive health. In her research and advocacy, Higgins endeavors to help people achieve their sexual health goals—for example, avoiding unwanted pregnancy and STIs, maximizing sexual well-being—within the context of their lives, relationships, and communities. In 2020, she founded CORE and built a team of researchers from across the University of Wisconsin System with expertise in fields ranging from medicine to the social sciences, including economics, sociology, and public policy.

In the two years since CORE’s founding, the landscape around reproductive health in the U.S. has changed rapidly with the passage new laws limiting access to reproductive health services, like abortion. In such a fast-moving environment, CORE researchers have learned to adapt their processes and methodologies to accurately collect the large amount of data on reproductive health being produced every day. Although academic research typically takes years to conduct, CORE researchers work to ensure quick and responsive data collection while retaining rigor. Maintaining high standards is essential for all researchers, but at CORE, investigators tackling high-profile topics, including abortion access, also need to ensure that their methodologies and subsequent results will not be misconstrued or falsified by detractors.

Together with outreach and communications staff, Higgins and her colleagues at CORE have worked to make sure that this important research is available beyond the academic audiences. Although peer-reviewed articles are essential to scholarly research, they are not necessarily easily accessible by policy makers or the public.

To address this gap, CORE produces several different public-facing products, including research briefs, two-page topical briefs often accompanied by infographics, and social media posts, to share research more widely. For Higgins, public engagement and outreach have become essential to her larger research agenda and new, exciting components of her work. She continually asks herself “Why does this research matter to individuals? To communities?”—and encourages other social scientists to ask these big picture questions.

Despite near daily changes to policies surrounding reproductive health, Higgins remains “galvanized that the work we’re doing is really important.” In future research, she hopes to see more focus on inequities in reproductive health and fertility. She also hopes social scientists will examine how contraception and abortion access are determinants of health and wellness over the life course.