Pioneering reproductive health expert Laurie Schwab Zabin dies at 94

Zabin was an internationally recognized expert on adolescent pregnancy, abortion, and sexual behavior who helped transform public attitudes toward contraceptive access for adolescents

Laurie Schwab Zabin, a professor of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an internationally recognized expert on adolescent pregnancy, abortion, and sexual behavior, died Monday from natural causes at Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson, Maryland. She was 94.

Laurie Schwab Zabin

During a three-decade association with Planned Parenthood of Maryland, she was among the first to advocate for the inclusion of family planning services within state-funded maternal health clinics. Her leadership in the Maryland chapter helped shape the national strategy of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

As a member of the medical and public health faculties at Johns Hopkins, Zabin's research and advocacy were instrumental in transforming public attitudes toward contraceptive access for adolescents.

"Her intellectual rigor, principled advocacy, and humanitarian spirit will continue to serve all of us as a guiding force within the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute here at the Bloomberg School and across the Johns Hopkins community," said Ellen J. MacKenzie, dean of the Bloomberg School.

Born Laurie Schwab on April 1, 1926 in New York City, she studied English literature to earn a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Harvard University. She came to Baltimore in 1948 and pursued a PhD in English at Johns Hopkins University.

Zabin's obstetrician at Johns Hopkins Hospital was Alan Guttmacher, later a national leader in family planning and reproductive health advocacy. At his urging, Zabin began volunteering with Planned Parenthood of Maryland in 1951 and later served with Guttmacher on the organization's board of directors. She was instrumental in establishing the Guttmacher Institute, a leading national policy and research organization committed to reproductive health rights and access.

Zabin continued her advocacy in a remarkable second career in academia. In 1975, she met with W. Henry Mosley, chair of Population Dynamics at what was then the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, to request admission to the department's PhD program. With impressive leadership credentials in Planned Parenthood, she wanted a solid research foundation to help her more effectively reach adolescents and prevent unintended pregnancies. Yet her graduate background in English literature led Mosley to tell her, "It's not that you are missing a prerequisite, you are missing every prerequisite."

Nonetheless, Mosley admitted her based on her experience, intellectual ability, and strong motivation. Zabin earned her PhD at age 53 in 1979.

In the early 1980s, Zabin's dissertation research made national headlines and energized efforts to establish school-based contraceptive clinics as a public health intervention. She showed that 50% of pregnancies in teenage girls ages 15 to 19 occurred within six months of becoming sexually active, and 20% occurred in the first month.

In 1981, while on the Johns Hopkins medical faculty in Gynecology-Obstetrics, Zabin collaborated with Hopkins pediatrician Janet Hardy to found a sex education and contraception clinic for East Baltimore secondary school students. Their data showed that teen mothers had higher risks for pregnancy complications and perinatal mortality, and their children faced substantial health and developmental risks. The clinic participants' pregnancy rate dropped 15% within three years.

Zabin frequently served as an expert witness and testified before local, state, and federal government bodies in support of adolescents' access to family planning services. She was instrumental during the 1980s in securing the rights of minors to obtain contraception without parental consent.

After transferring her primary appointment to the School of Public Health in 1986, she was the founding director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, established in 1999 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As the institute's director until 2002, Zabin led its work to advance family planning and reproductive health in the developing world, including partnering with the Gates Foundation to revitalize international cooperation in family planning through convening leadership conferences. The institute has trained more than 850 fellows, scholars, and visiting scholars from more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America in strategic leadership and research methodologies.

Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School, noted that Zabin's contributions to reproductive health "changed the field forever; the Gates Institute stands as an institutional memorial."

Amy Tsui, who succeeded Zabin as director of the Gates Institute, credited Zabin for leading "the reproductive health community and its leaders, both in and outside the U.S., in ways few individuals have—with impactful research, mentoring, and advocacy." Tsui called Zabin "an intellectual force [who] leaves an irreplaceable legacy in the minds of new leadership she inspired."

Zabin's many honors include Planned Parenthood of Maryland's Margaret Sanger Award, the Carl A. Schultz Award of the American Public Health Association, and the Irvin M. Cushner Award of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. The Bloomberg School established a scholarship in her honor, and she received the Johns Hopkins University Heritage Award in 2013.

Cynthia Minkovitz, current chair of the Bloomberg School's Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, called Zabin "a fearless and visionary leader who herself created many firsts. Laurie is and will continue to be an inspiration to generations of public health scholars in adolescent and sexual and reproductive health. She believed firmly in rigorous research and demanded its translation to impactful policies and programs."

Zabin is survived by a son, two daughters, 10 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

Current pandemic conditions preclude a funeral, but the Bloomberg School will organize a tribute in the near future.