Meet Dr. Lauren Ralph, researcher putting young people first

Dr. Lauren Ralph
Adolescence is a pivotal phase. What happens in those years can set a path for someone’s health far into the future. Despite the importance of understanding and supporting young people, a lot of research just doesn’t include them. The ethics of including young people in research can be tricky. They can be harder to reach than older research subjects. But Dr. Lauren Ralph of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health is taking those challenges head on. “We’re doing a disservice if we can’t gather their perspectives and experiences and make better policy for them.” She likes to look at adolescence as a phase of opportunity rather than one of risk; investment in young people can pay enormous dividends.

Dr. Ralph’s work adds another layer of sensitivity by taking up questions around how adolescents make decisions around pregnancy. Policymakers often assume that young people aren’t capable of making big, important decisions for themselves. The idea that adolescents can’t choose how to handle a pregnancy and whom to involve in that decision isn’t well-founded in research. This misconception has inspired a majority of states to require parental involvement in a minor’s abortion decision. These unfounded ideas are intertwined with controversy around abortion – state laws typically allow young people to make decisions on their own for pregnancy care

Dr. Ralph’s research is helping to change that landscape. She studied minors’ experiences before and after Illinois’ parental notification law went into effect. She found that not only was the law not beneficial to minors; it has troubling consequences, including delays for minors traveling from out of state and less certainty about their decisions. Illinois is now the first state considering a bill that would repeal their parental notification law. That’s just the beginning of the work to undo the damage and give young people the autonomy they deserve. Illinois’ law is burdensome but more permissive than many other states. Dr. Ralph has worked tirelessly to build relationships with organizations that work on these policies to ensure that the policy debate around the country is informed by evidence.

Her love for the process of research and understanding how complex systems and factors influence people’s health has at times led her to some surprising results. In her work on the groundbreaking Turnaway Study, she and her team assumed that being denied a wanted abortion would impact women’s ability to pursue further education. They were surprised to find that women who had the abortions they wanted were no more likely to graduate or drop out. It reinforced a holistic idea of health and wellbeing that drew her to public health in the first place, understanding the impact of social determinants of health from a very young age. “If we want to empower people with education, we have to be working to give them opportunity well before the risk of pregnancy.”

Dr. Ralph is not afraid to wade into thorny issues, no matter where her research takes her. She’s methodical about disentangling issues to truly understand them, all with an eye toward real-world impact. “If my work improved access for young people, gave people autonomy for whatever their decision was, to make it without going through all these barriers and without feeling stigma, that would be a huge success.”