After the fall of Roe, experts discuss the reproductive rights landscape

A panel of political and reproductive rights experts from Mount Holyoke College and Smith College spoke about the history of reproductive rights in both America and Latin America and about ways to fight against the current abortion restrictions.

Three months after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Mount Holyoke College hosted political and reproductive rights experts to discuss the past, present and potential future of reproductive rights in America and beyond. 

Kavita Khory, director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives and professor of politics at Mount Holyoke, introduced each participant and also thanked them for making time in their busy schedules to participate.   

Adam Hilton, assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke and moderator of the panel discussion, then offered some introductory words. 

“The sheer magnitude of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the constitutional right to abortion cannot be overstated,” said Hilton.  

Hilton was joined by Joanna Wuest, assistant professor of politics; Cora Fernandez Anderson, associate professor of politics; and Carrie Baker, professor of the study of women and gender at Smith College. Each presenter had around 15 minutes — keeping it to that was a tall order for a topic as multifaceted as abortion rights.

Wuest guided the audience through a quick tour of American reproductive rights history.

While a Republican justice penned Roe v. Wade, Wuest explained, abortion became a wedge issue that split the two major political parties. 

“The late 1970s saw the rise of the religious right, which gradually came to dominate the Republican Party,” said Wuest. This faction consolidated its growing power to rally against social liberties like gay and lesbian rights, racial integration in schools and abortion.   

Antiabortion advocates within the religious right overwhelmingly backed Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Reagan then gave the movement a boost when he proposed a rule that prohibited federally funded health-care providers from referring patients to abortion providers. 

“Then, in 1987, Reagan nominated the antiabortion legal scholar Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and Bork famously lost his nomination fight in the Senate, in large part because he was so vocal about his desire to overturn precedents like Roe v. Wade,” said Wuest. 

Joanna Wuest speaking at the After Roe panel in 2022
Joanna Wuest, assistant professor of politics

Since then antiabortion justices have kept their views close to their chest during their nomination hearings and then “acted against it [abortion] once they held their lifetime positions,” said Wuest. 

After Wuest, Anderson, whose expertise is partially rooted in reproductive rights movements in Latin America, took the stage. 

She pointed out that, as the United States is moving away from reproductive freedom, many countries in Latin America are embracing it.

“The U.S. has now become an outlier among Global North countries, but we also are starting to become an outlier within the Americas,” said Anderson.

The spirit of her presentation, she explained, centered on lessons from Latin America that could be applied in the fight against the rollback of abortion rights in the U.S.

One of those lessons could include imitating what health agencies in Latin America did: Rather than wait for policy reforms, they expanded the definition of health to include mental health, so if a pregnant person said they were in distress over their pregnancy, it would be legal for a doctor to perform the procedure. (Idaho might take note since a federal judge just ruled doctors won’t be punished if they perform abortions that protect a patient’s health.)

Next up, Baker imparted more reasons to hope while acknowledging the reality of what the reproductive landscape has been like since Dobbs. 

Baker spotlighted Massachusetts as one state that’s fighting against abortion restrictions with a recent law that protects access to reproductive health-care services.

“It [the law] requires that insurance covers abortion and abortion-related care without cost sharing, including co-pays and deductibles,” said Baker. “It also requires that Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities provide medication abortion at campus health centers.”    

Baker also highlighted the importance of voting in the upcoming November midterm elections, especially in nine key Senate races in Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Florida.

“There is a law called the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would basically codify Roe. It would legalize abortion nationwide. But it has been filibustered by the Republicans,” said Baker. “To remove the filibuster, Democrats need to hold the U.S. House and gain two seats in the Senate.”

Baker then offered a call to action: “If you’re from those states, vote in those states — don’t vote in Massachusetts. And tell your friends back home to vote and help those states. Donate to those candidates.” 

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