President Paula A. Johnson on stage at the Aspen Institute’s conference Aspen Ideas: Health.
President Paula A. Johnson speaks at the Aspen Institute.
Photo provided by Daniel Bayer

President Johnson Speaks About Roe v. Wade, Health Equity at Aspen Institute Conference

Carine Tarazi ’03
July 11, 2022

On June 24, the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Wellesley College President Paula Johnson joined three panels at the Aspen Institute’s conference Aspen Ideas: Health, in Colorado.

The court’s decision eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion was the central topic as audience members and panelists attempted to grasp what it might mean—medically, politically, and economically—in the weeks and months ahead. 

For the first panel, “Overhauling Women’s Healthcare,” Johnson, who is a cardiologist and researcher, joined Beri Ridgeway, chief of staff at Cleveland Clinic, and Maria Shriver, founder of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement at Cleveland Clinic; Kate Snow, senior national correspondent with NBC News, moderated the discussion. The panelists laid out how calamitous the court’s decision would be for women’s health and sense of personhood. Asked about the impact the court’s ruling would have on the medical field, Johnson said that because the issue has been politicized to the point of violence, “based on the data, we know that there is a shortage of physicians that do provide the service of abortion. … Young people going into the field of [obstetrics and gynecology] would choose not to have their own lives threatened, no matter their personal beliefs.”

Johnson also participated in the panel “Can Medicine Become More Equitable?” with Linda Villarosa, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and Carolina Reyes, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at UC Davis School of Medicine and a contributor to the 2002 report Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Healthcare.

This issue of health equity, inclusive of sex and gender, race, ethnicity, isn’t going to change unless there’s a movement. That movement has to start with us.

Paula A. Johnson, Wellesley College President

The panelists spoke about the need to train doctors to put aside their assumptions about each patient and instead listen to what the patient is telling them. They also said that while we now recognize health inequities, systems to effectively build on that foundation are still missing.

“We saw that up close and personal through COVID, which was an absolute disaster,” Johnson said. “And what was frightening was that even at the beginning of the pandemic, we did not even have the measurement—the data systems—to really understand what was going on: who was being impacted, and where.”

Reyes called it a sad day, and she recalled treating women who had had botched abortions while she was a medical student. “Disparities are going to be worse,” she said. “We know this because people are going to be afraid to come in for care; providers are going to be afraid to practice in states where they’re intimidated and may undergo litigation. … It will only change if there’s public outcry.”

At one point Johnson addressed the audience: “I bet there are people in this room who are on hospital boards. I bet there are people in this room who are investors in biotech or who support other research organizations. … This issue of health equity, inclusive of sex and gender, race, ethnicity, isn’t going to change unless there’s a movement. That movement has to start with us.”

In a discussion that was put together in response to the breaking news of the court’s decision, panelists discussed the legal ramifications of the ruling in the future. Though abortion access is a moving target for the time being, Johnson said one thing is certain: “History tells us that this decision will impact higher education for women and impact the economic advancement—the advancement of women in so many different ways.

“We have got to reexamine how we consider, promote, create advancement for women in general. … [E]ven after a pandemic when so many women were suffering, families were suffering, we still cannot get a policy of support for child care nationally or paid family leave. There are states that do this, but it really is going to require a larger agenda.”