Student Voices Jun. 21 2016

Mapping Abortion Policy Effects with Geographic Information Systems

Women’s health may be suffering as a result of state policies that have reduced access to abortion. I did an analysis in the course "Geographic Information Systems for Public Health"(GIS), taught by professor Michael Mintz in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. The course aims to teach students how to use geographic information systems to analyze and represent spatial data. The goal was to teach students how to turn raw data into visually appealing and easily understandable maps. My research project found that states with several policies restricting abortion access often have lower rates of pap smears.  

Abortion policy mapPap smears provide women with a strong defense against cervical cancer through early detection and prevention. Cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates have declined dramatically since the introduction of the pap test, which is offered at women’s health clinics.

Clinics that provide abortions services often perform other healthcare services related to sexual health, and it makes sense that restrictive abortion policies might limit access to crucial healthcare. With the recent increase in Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) Laws, I was interested in researching how these policies may affect women in unintended ways.

I performed my analysis with the software ArcGIS, a geographic information system that creates maps, and I represented the number of restrictive abortion policies by state along with pap smear rates for the year 2015. Though more long-term data is needed to confirm this relationship, it generally appears that states with more policies restricting abortion have lower rates of pap smears. In general, these policies may be associated with severe unintended consequences that could be detrimental for women’s health over time.

Pap smear ratesUsing datasets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, I was able to create a visualization for this state data with ArcGIS. I depicted a preliminary relationship for this project, but a more rigorous statistical analysis would be required to verify these findings.

“GIS is an important tool to display and analyze data, especially when showing data to lay audiences or policy makers who may be more likely to understand visual displays,” Teaching Assistant Cara Smith said. “This skill is extremely beneficial for public health students to learn.”

Over the semester, we learned how to obtain datasets from sources and use GIS tools to display the data. For our final project, we were given the opportunity to find our own data and represent a research topic of interest. We had an inaugural poster session in May for the class to present posters on their findings. Like me, other students had some interesting outcomes.

Mayra Cruz, Environmental Health Sciences, MPH '17, analyzed adult obesity rates, heat stress hospitalizations, and home air conditioning in New York City to visually display regions of vulnerability to heat. Cruz found that obese adults without air conditioning in their homes are more likely to be hospitalized for heat stress.

“GIS is a valuable skill to have in public health," Cruz said. "Now I can represent a spatial analysis and use it to inform public health programming.”

As a public health student, I believe educating the public on issues that may put their health at risk can create vast positive health impacts. As a budding public health professional, I've benefitted from utilizing this software to communicate policies and public health risks clearly to a general audience. Using GIS, we can effectively make data widely available and understandable to the public — and inspire behavioral changes that promote health.


By Christina Olbrantz, Environmental Health Sciences, MPH '17

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