Scholars Weigh in on the End of Roe v. Wade
Faculty and alumni experts comment on the abortion ruling and what it portends.
Today, in a long-anticipated ruling, the Supreme revoked the constitutional right to an abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade. Graduate Center scholars and activists weighed in on what the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization means for women's rights, LGBTQ rights, public health, and more.
“The Supreme Court’s decision represents an appalling setback in the quest for reproductive justice and ignores the views of most residents of the United States. It will severely curtail people’s ability to decide when and whether to have and raise children. But it’s also important to remember that we’ve been here before, and Roe was just one point on a long timeline of the struggle for reproductive justice.
“In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting use of federal funds to pay for abortions and thus restricting access for poor families. We’ve seen the rollback in access to abortion and reproductive services ever since.
“Keeping this history in mind, the decision is a critically important reminder to not rely on the Supreme Court to deliver justice: That requires a mass movement to demand social change. Before Roe, when access to abortion depended on an individual’s race, wealth, and residence, activists—including doctors, lawyers, clergy—mobilized in cities and on campuses to help people get the care they needed and to raise public awareness of the devastating impact of lack of access to abortion for some and, for others, coercive or involuntary sterilization and birth control.
“Since the 1960s, activists, led by people of color, have continued to push for an expanded vision of reproductive justice that extends to people who are incarcerated, immigrants and asylum seekers, members of the trans community, those who are low-income, and others who have been deprived their rights to sexual autonomy. I hope today’s decision will bring new attention to this activism and help to reenergize this movement for justice.”
—Professor Anne Valk (History); director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning; author and co-author of Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, DC, 1968-1980 and Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South
“We knew this was coming, but that does not diminish our anger nor our resolve. The Supreme Court has callously overturned constitutional protection for an abortion, allowing states to police and force birth. Do not think this is a race-class neutral decision. The kind of regulations that will accompany this horrendous decision will most certainly weigh down communities of color, low-income people. What is the point, one wonders? This is about criminalizing and controlling not only the lives of pregnant people, but also tearing asunder rights that allow people to live their lives in concert with their own values. This demand for a type of ideological and behavioral uniformity harkens to a fascism that is strangling democracy.
“Make no mistake that this decision will result in a resurrection of such practices as bounty hunting, legal lynching, the development of cottage industries, and a range of capital complexes to control bodies will emerge. Forced reproduction is not at all new in this country. We are reliving the era of enslavement in its afterlife.
“The people will not sit for this insidious form of enslavement. There are many allies and connections of solidarity in the works.”
—Professor Dána-Ain Davis (GC/Queens, Anthropology, Psychology, Women’s and Gender Studies/Urban Studies), director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society and the Women’s and Gender Studies master’s program; author of five books including Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth
“What’s next on the chopping block? While many have (rightfully so) focused on Alito’s comments, I was taken by Thomas’s. According to The New York Times, in his concurring opinion, Thomas “noted that in its rationale, the court’s majority found that a right to abortion was not a form of ‘liberty’ protected by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution — as the court had said in Roe.”
“And while Alito’s opinion stated that “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion,” frighteningly, according to The New York Times, Thomas “took aim at three other landmark cases that relied on that same legal reasoning: Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that declared married couples had a right to contraception; Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 case invalidating sodomy laws and making same-sex sexual activity legal across the country; and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case establishing the right of gay couples to marry.”
“Next on this (il)logical slippery slope could be Brown v. Board of Education (1954 and 1955), Loving vs. Virginia (1967), etc.”
—Presidential Professor Juan Battle (GC/CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies; Sociology, Urban Education, Social Welfare/Urban Studies), co-editor, most recently, of Black Sexualities: Probing Powers, Passions, Practices, and Policies
“Together with its decision to support the gun industry over people's lives, the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade isn't unexpected and yet is still appalling. And I want also to remind us that by the time these issues come before the court, it's too late: How is it possible that we've normalized gun violence so thoroughly, that medical and health concerns are subjects of moral debate rather than basic welfare? That all of this will impact the most vulnerable people and communities most severely is simply to state the obvious. We need to know the histories and cultures and sensibilities that authorize all of this so as to intervene well before we get to litigation — to activate political and popular cultural will to organize around cherished life rather than acceptable death.
—Professor Kandice Chuh (English, Psychology, Liberal Studies), author of The Difference Aesthetics Makes and Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique, and co-editor of Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora
“The fight of feminists and others for all people of color, women, and queer lives, is grounded in bodies. In any society, access to abortion, freedom from violence, access to housing and food, are all indicators of the bodies that matter. In the United States, bodies of color, queer bodies, women’s bodies have not mattered and each move for bodily integrity has been a profound, often violent struggle. The Supreme Court ruling on abortion is one piece of a larger backlash against bodily integrity for everyone. It is bound up with white supremacist terrorism and attacks on education, and with laws denying trans people the basic human right to existence, and with the silencing of social movements, and even conversations, around Palestine, racial history, and sexual education. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a profound defeat of basic human rights. It foreshadows extensive suffering in women’s lives, queer lives, and especially those of color. Yet it will not be the end of the struggle.”
—Professor Jean Halley (GC/College of Staten Island, Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies, Liberal Studies), author of Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses; Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race; and The Roads to Hillbrow: Making Life in South Africa's Community of Migrants
“When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I came home from vacation Bible school one summer and said that I thought abortion should be illegal.
“My mother erupted into a fury. You have no idea what you're talking about, she told me. You'll never understand why someone might need an abortion.
“She and my dad had adopted me and my sister because she couldn't safely conceive and carry a pregnancy. In that moment I learned what that meant for her, and why she cared so deeply about reproductive freedom. She died a couple years later, but I have never forgotten that moment. It was one of the most transformational in my life.
“I'm not sure she could have predicted this moment 35 years ago, but she was certainly worried about it. And those of us working on gender and sexual justice in the U.S. have seen it coming for at least a decade. That it arrives now alongside open efforts to erode democracy in the U.S., and at the same time that many of our neighbors in Latin America are moving in the opposite direction, underlines just how dangerous and reactionary this decision is. Justice Clarence Thomas made sure in his concurrence to tell us how far he and his allies on this corrupt Supreme Court intend to go, openly inviting right-wing activists to file challenges against the right to contraception, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage.
“My mom was the first person who taught me that our fates are bound up together, and I've relearned that lesson many times since through my academic and political work with various movements of oppressed people. Coalitional movements like that are the only way out of this crisis. They always have been, and always will be.”
—Professor Michael Yarbrough (GC/John Jay, Sociology/Political Science), co-editor of the After Marriage Equality book series and of the forthcoming Research Handbook on Law, Movements, and Social Change, due out in 2023.
“As an activist and researcher in the field of reproductive justice, I have been expecting this ruling for a long time, but it is nonetheless crushing to witness this final blow to constitutional protections of abortion rights.
“I encourage all who feel hopeless in this moment to resist pulling out your coat hanger signs and making comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale. What we know from decades of research around the globe is that people with privilege will always have access to abortion. The changes put in place by this ruling will disproportionately affect people of color. We know deaths will increase in response to legal changes, but not because people are accessing unsafe illegal abortion. These abortion restrictions will exacerbate the maternal mortality crisis for Black women in the U.S., who are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
“There is grief in this ruling, but there is also the force of a movement working around the clock to ensure ongoing access to abortion, despite the law. We can support that effort by spreading accurate information about safe, self-managed abortion and supporting organizations that promote equitable and legal abortion access across state lines.”
—Alumna Brenna McCaffrey (Ph.D. ’22, Anthropology) wrote a dissertation on the successful campaign to lift Ireland’s abortion ban. A reproductive rights activist, she uses social media to spread the word about self-managed abortions.
“Planned Parenthood and our partners have been preparing for every possible outcome in this case for decades. Sex education is one of many tools we can use in the long game of helping to rebuild abortion access more equitably. It’s how we raise a new generation of leaders to help us create a better future — leaders who understand how pregnancy happens, value consent and bodily autonomy, and see how gender, sexuality, and race intersect with power and policies to affect health outcomes.
“In the face of widespread loss of abortion access across the nation, it is imperative that all people — especially young people — have access to sex education. Sex education gives young people age-appropriate, medically accurate information and answers to their questions about sex and relationships, without being shamed or judged. It has been proven to positively impact young people’s lives. But too many young people don’t have access to sex education, or the programs they receive are shaming or inaccurate.
“Now is the time to be proactive. Don’t assume the young people in your life are getting honest, medically accurate sex education at school. Ask school leaders what exactly is being taught and by whom. And remember that sex education doesn’t only happen in schools. Community partners such as your local Planned Parenthood affiliate provide sex education that can be tailored to meet the specific needs of your school, community organization or faith-based institution.”
—Alumna Sara Flowers (D.P.H. ’16), vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood
“How did abortion get to be something governments can regulate? We think of the state — governments local and national — as being the regulators, but think harder about medicine — as an industry with global reach, colonizing the world and our bodies. Abortion became medicalized, and thus legitimated with Roe as a decision “between a woman and her doctor” — then as now, women’s judgment was neither trusted nor empowered.
It is time to decolonize our bodies, to recognize the rights of people, including those who are pregnant, to make decisions about their own bodies. Regulation through the state or biopower will not stop those with money from accessing abortion; it will only further the colonization of the bodies of marginalized people.”
—Professor Barbara Katz Rothman (Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies), author of several books including The Biomedical Empire: Lessons Learned from the Covid-19 Pandemic; A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization; and Recreating Motherhood.
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