“This is the world we now live in”: Wellesley Alums Explain the Post-Roe Reality in Law, Advocacy, and Health Care

Screenshot shows seven Zoom screens from the June 30th webinar discussing the Dobbs decision.
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

On June 30, less than a week after the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson that overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the College hosted a webinar featuring six Wellesley alums who work in law, advocacy, and reproductive health to discuss the landmark decision. Jennifer Musto, associate professor of women’s and gender studies and the incoming director of the Knapp Social Science Center, moderated the event, which drew over 900 attendees.

Carol Sanger ’70, Barbara Aronstein Black Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, and Jennifer Chou ’08, a staff attorney for the Gender, Sexuality & Reproductive Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California, spoke first about the legal fallout from the decision.

Sanger said the basis of Roe v. Wade was the doctrine of privacy, which holds that the government should not be involved in private matters such as abortion, contraception, sexual intimacy, and marriage. “If you knock privacy down and erase it from jurisprudence as a doctrine, it means that if there are other cases that are also grounded in privacy, you may well be able to knock them down too,” she said. Sanger noted that Justice Samuel Alito claimed the Dobbs decision only would impact abortion, while Justice Clarence Thomas welcomed the decision as an opening for relitigating contraception, same-sex intimacy, and same-sex marriage. “Those areas, I believe, are very likely to be attacked in the coming years on the same grounds that Roe was,” she said.

Sanger also brought up issues that could arise when abortion is legal in some states and not in others––people seeking abortions in states where it is illegal will be committing crimes, moving from “being a patient to being a criminal.” Even while Roe was in place, Sanger said, women were made to feel shameful about their abortions and did not talk often about them. “This is quite a serious social problem,” said Sanger. “The less abortion is actually talked about, the more the narrative about who gets abortions, why they get them, and so on, defaults to the anti-abortion advocates.”

Criminalization of pregnant people had already been happening prior to the Dobbs ruling; Chou said she has worked on cases involving pregnant women who were accused of homicide when they experienced a stillbirth. Before Roe v. Wade, providers of abortion care were largely the ones under threat of legal action. “What we are seeing today is a shift to criminalizing pregnant people themselves,” said Chou. “And this is not going to stop with abortion.” Chou said anything from having a glass of wine to taking medication for depression to seeking treatment for cancer while pregnant could subject a pregnant person to criminal investigation and proceedings: “This is the world we now live in.”

“Laws that codify a right are only as meaningful as people’s ability to actually access that right,” she added. Even in California, which has some of the country’s most liberal reproductive rights laws, patients had a hard time seeking abortion care before the overturning of Roe v. Wade––the nearest abortion clinic could be a two-hour drive away for residents of some counties.

Alise Powell ’15, federal policy analyst at the National Birth Equity Collaborative (NBEC), and Ann Warner ’00, CEO at the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN) in South Carolina, spoke about the impact of the new ruling on advocacy for all birthing people.

Powell and her colleagues at NBEC filed a Black maternal health amicus brief to defend abortion access in September 2021 in response to Dobbs v. Jackson. They argued that by denying access to abortion, such a ruling would impact Black women in particular. “Mississippi’s ban and the subsequent reversal of Roe is an exercise of state control over Black bodies and choices, discounting Black women’s ability to make the best decisions for themselves and their families … And it’s a gross violation of the core values of reproductive justice,” said Powell. “Everyone deserves the right to have a child, the right not to have a child, and the right to parent the children they have in a safe and healthy environment.”

Warner said the six-week abortion ban had already gone into effect in South Carolina. “The impact has been immediate and severe … it is a state of chaos, confusion, and fear,” she said. But at the same time, she is impressed by the increase in advocacy in the state, where people are fighting not just for access to abortion, but also for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, voting rights, and the right to teach accurate history in schools. “We have an incredible coalition of organizations that are coming together here in South Carolina and that are also forging alliances across state lines,” she said. “We cannot rely on the legislature. We have to rely [on] and invest in the power of people and organizations, and so we need to invest more in those movements.”

Two OB/GYNs, Dr. Veronica Ades ’99, director of the EMPOWER Center in New York City, and Dr. Devika Maulik ’00, University of Missouri Kansas City maternal fetal medicine fellowship director who cares for people with high-risk pregnancies in Kansas City, Mo., spoke about the direct impact the Dobbs decision will have on patients and providers.

Ades, who has worked in countries where abortion is illegal, like Uganda, said changing the laws doesn’t actually stop abortions from happening. “It just criminalizes it and makes it unsafe,” she said.

In Missouri, Maulik had already only been allowed to provide abortion as an option in a “medical emergency,” but she said the language about what constitutes such an emergency is vague and unclear, which she finds frustrating. If a patient’s membrane ruptures and the pregnancy is no longer viable, Ades said, do providers need to wait until the patient is septic to provide an abortion? “Does she have to be in the ICU and dying for me to remove that pregnancy?” she asked. “Do we have to wait for the [fetus’s] heartbeat to stop? Does that sound preposterous to you? It sounds preposterous to me, but it’s actually a reality.”

Musto then took questions from the audience about issues like how to teach the Dobbs decision in law school, how to teach medical students to perform abortions, the best resources and ways to get involved with reprodutive justice advocacy, and whether it is better to restore Roe v. Wade or start again with newer, stronger protective laws.

“What is important going forward is that we don’t lose hope,” said Chou. “How can you not feel defeated when your rights are being stripped away? But I think it’s important to understand that there is a path forward. It is not immediate. Unfortunately, there are no immediate solutions, and we have to continue to work together.”

Warner said seeing how many hundreds of people had tuned into the webinar gave her hope. “My request of all of you is to stay with us,” she said. “This is a long-term fight. We need you. We need each other. Please invest in the movements across this country as locally as you can. That’s where the power and the possibility are, and we can nurture a really positive vision for change.”

To watch the complete webinar, visit Wellesley’s YouTube page.