How librarians should approach the discussion of sensitive topics such as Roe v. wade

In the late 19th century, abortion became illegal in the United States, and it wasn’t until the 1960s, during the women’s rights movement, that court cases involving contraceptives laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade. In 1970, Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortion, and that same year New York also legalized it. In 1973, abortion was legally available in Alaska and Washington. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court, ruling on the Roe vs. Wade Case, overturned a Texas law banning abortion and effectively legalized the procedure nationwide. In a majority opinion written by Judge Harry Blackmun, the court, in a 7-2 decision, said a person’s right to an abortion is implicit in the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment.

The Roe vs. Wade the decision is now in danger based on leaked information suggesting it could be canceled. In the ruling, the court recognized a person’s right to an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. He said a person’s decision to have an abortion is up to the individual and local governments cannot interfere. During the second trimester, a state can regulate abortions, but not prohibit them. When the fetus becomes viable, after the second trimester, a state may “regulate or prohibit abortions in the interest of potential life, except when necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother,” according to Cornell Law School. (via The Charlotte Observer).

In the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Kinship of Southeast Pennsylvania vs. Caseythe “quarterly framework” was eliminated. This decision reiterated that people can abort any time before a fetus is viable and confirmed Roe vs. Wade. Whether Roe vs. Wade is overturned, the legality of abortion would be decided at the state level. Since Roe vs. Wade decision, many states have imposed restrictions that weaken the right to abortion. Americans remain divided on support for a person’s right to choose to have an abortion.


The potential reversal of Roe vs. Wade is surprising news to many and has left some, especially women, a bit alarmed. Additionally, it has caused people to be very concerned about other legal rights that may be at stake, including same-sex marriage and access to birth control. The subject of abortion is not only a political issue, but also a medical, ethical and religious issue. People across the country have had to come to terms with their own beliefs about abortion and what Roe vs. Wade means for women (and people with wombs) and their future to make independent decisions.

According to ALA Library Charter of Rights, two of the main functions of librarians are to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” and to “defy censorship in fulfilling their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment” . As former ALA President Julius C. Jefferson Jr. wrote in 2021, despite challenges, attacks and other outside forces, “libraries and library workers will continue to meet the needs of our customers and restore our communities. And library advocates will continue to tell stories that demonstrate the value of libraries. Customer needs right now may well include learning about abortion laws, and libraries can show their worth by responding effectively.

My library, the Linn County Law Library in Oregon, along with many other libraries across the United States, works with constituents concerned about sensitive issues such as abortion, women’s rights and the ‘roaming. Methods used to eliminate concerns or confusion about sensitive matters may vary, but there are certain best practices that can be used when providing or discussing sensitive information with customers.


The library environment can be a challenge for librarians when engaging in conversations about sensitive topics with a patron. If your library is small, you may want to have a patron discussion in a more private space where the patron feels comfortable sharing information. Although law librarians cannot provide legal advice, they can provide information that can help put a client at ease, allowing them to understand some of the sensitive issues they are dealing with.

Be respectful and listen carefully to your customers. Everyone is different and has their own style and pace of learning. Help your patrons understand what the library or librarian(s) can provide to help their patrons address and understand controversial and sensitive topics.

Although the Linn County Law Library does not have a policy regarding the discussion of controversial cases and statutes in the library, every patron’s concerns are handled with respect. Many libraries have conference rooms, tables to sit at, and other places where these discussions can take place.

Each library may or may not have policies on how to respond to patron concerns and questions about sensitive and controversial topics. It would be wise to reference and update library policies, including those on how best to approach and discuss controversial decisions and laws in a library setting. Not only will you appreciate having these policies, but they will also help you develop guidelines on how to engage in such conversations professionally in the future.

Keeping people up to date with information is only one job of a librarian, although finding unbiased and neutrally approached information is sometimes a complicated process. Librarians strive to locate data that meets the needs of the information user. It is also important that librarians remain impartial; after all, the information they present is meant to be informative. It’s the job of librarians to help break down some of the barriers users face and not act as barriers ourselves, says Zachary Lewis of the University of Dayton in “Sensitive research topics: librarians do not judge; Ask for help.”


It is the responsibility of libraries to provide customers with the right to privacy, according to the ALA Library Bill of Rights. Article III of the American Library Association Code of Ethics, quoted inPrivacy: An Interpretation of the Libraries Bill of Rights“, clarifies that “Confidentiality extends to ‘information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted’, including, but not limited to, reference questions and interviews, traffic recordings, digital transactions and requests, and records regarding the use of library resources, services, programs, or facilities. This requires librarians not only to keep laws and regulations up to date in their libraries, but to handle confidential and/or sensitive information in a professional and non-judgmental manner.

Part of a librarian’s job is to help educate the public in the most effective way possible, and managing conversations around sensitive issues is an important aspect of that role.