Ethical Challenges: Profession Prepares to Protect Social Workers Amid Changing Political Landscape

Mar 13, 2023

hand holds umbrella over a group of people

By Alison Laurio

Search online for “Planned Parenthood and abortion rights” and a page opens with large white letters standing out against a dark background. The message: “The U.S. Supreme Court has ended the federal constitutional right to abortion — handing our power to control our own bodies to politicians.”

After Roe was overturned on June 24, 2022, and lacking a federal policy, many states scrambled to either protect access to abortion or ban it. Several months later, the Kaiser Family Foundation published information on the status of access to abortion, including: Abortion banned in 13 states; abortion ban temporarily blocked making abortion legal in five states; abortions available in 24 states and Washington, D.C.

“Access to safe legal abortions,” Kaiser states, “now depends on where you live, and the national divide in access to abortion care has been intensified.”

Laws and regulations have been altered or new ones passed as states craft and implement legislation that protects or criminalizes women’s health care — and in some cases its providers — if abortion services are given. Also at risk as some state legislatures flex their muscles are gender identity services. Social workers in some parts of the nation are navigating ethical dilemmas and many worry they could face civil or criminal situations just for doing their jobs.

Ethics Guide

“Regrettably, social workers in a number of jurisdictions throughout the United States are facing daunting ethical challenges in light of recent court rulings, state statutes, and governors’ executive orders,” said Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, a professor in the graduate program at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work in Providence.

“Some laws — especially those related to reproductive health and gender identity and sexual orientation — have placed social workers firmly on the horns of an ethical dilemma. Social workers who are deeply committed to serving their clients’ needs now find themselves facing onerous repercussions if their actions violate the law,” Reamer said.

Reamer, chairman of the task force that wrote the current NASW Code of Ethics and who serves on the Code of Ethics Revisions Task Force, said for example, “Social workers who assist a pregnant person who is making a difficult decision about the pregnancy could be at risk of prosecution or other sanctions if their actions violate state law. The same is true of social workers who provide good-faith services to minor clients who seek help managing challenges related to gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Read the full story at NASW Social Work Advocates magazine.

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