Emerson College's student newspaper
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Photo: Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi.

Emerson students, faculty reflect on post-Roe America

November 2, 2022

On June 24—the day Roe v. Wade was overturned—Sophia Drummond, an Emerson student from Arkansas, saw a trigger ban go into effect in her home state. 

“It was just very immediate,” Drummond said, a sophomore creative writing major. “There was no turnaround period because Arkansas had been preparing for [the overturn].”

Arkansas banned all abortions except those to save a pregnant person’s life. Performing an abortion could lead to 10 years in prison, up to a $100,000 fine, or both. A total of 13 states passed trigger ban laws after the Supreme Court released its decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, allowing these states to ban abortion nearly immediately. 

Two friends from Texas—sophomore writing, literature, and publishing majors Sofia Attaway and Hannah Hillis—saw a trigger ban law go into effect 30 days after the overturn. The law completely bans abortion from the moment of fertilization, unless a pregnant patient faces “a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy,” according to Chapter 170A of the Texas Health and Safety Code. 

Before its trigger ban, Texas restricted abortion after six weeks of pregnancy: a time most people don’t yet know they are pregnant. 

Attaway and Hillis heard about the overturn during a summer road trip from Dallas to Houston. The two friends spent the almost four-hour trip in shock from the news.

“It was just one of those things where we can’t escape this anymore,” Hillis said. “It’s real.” 

They spent much of the trip discussing how to find a future that could allow them to feel like their reproductive rights were secure. 

Abortion access across the U.S.

In 1973, the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade protected a person’s right to an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, up to 12 weeks. In the second trimester—26 weeks—states could regulate abortions while considering a pregnant person’s health. In the third trimester, when the fetus is considered “viable”—when it can live outside the womb—from week 27 to birth, states could regulate or prohibit abortion entirely, with exceptions to when an abortion is necessary for a pregnant person’s health. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, abortion may be the only way to save a pregnant person’s life in instances such as placenta abruption or high blood pressure disorders like preeclampsia or eclampsia.  

The majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson reasons that because the U.S. Constitution does not mention abortion, the right is not constitutionally protected. This allows states to make abortion laws at their discretion.

As of Oct. 13, 13 states banned abortion, and in Georgia, abortion is banned at six weeks. Some state courts, like those in North Dakota, are still determining the status of their abortion bans. In other states, abortion is legal up to a certain number of weeks, ranging from 15 weeks in Arizona to viability in California.

The abortion landscape in Massachusetts

Just five days after the overturning of Roe, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill that expands protections for reproductive and gender-affirming care. The bill was officially signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker at the end of July. 

Aaron Michlewitz is a state representative for the third Suffolk district and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which sponsored the bill. In an interview with The Beacon, he said the bill protects providers who perform abortions on out-of-state patients and eliminates co-pays and deductibles for abortion services. The bill also includes university-specific initiatives like emergency contraceptive vending machines and mandates public colleges and universities to provide medication abortion services.

“[The bill] was about protecting the rights of our constituents and protecting the rights of our providers in making sure they were not being attacked by other states,” Michlewitz said. 

The new law builds upon previous successful efforts to ensure abortion rights. In anticipation of Roe v. Wade being overturned after Donald Trump’s appointment of three pro-life Supreme Court judges, the Massachusetts House and Senate codified Roe v. Wade through the ROE Act at the end of 2020. Baker vetoed the bill, but the House and Senate overrode the veto. 

The ROE Act allows abortions after 24 weeks in cases of lethal fetal anomaly and lowers the age for parental or judicial consent to abortion from 18 to 16. 

The recent legislation bolsters the ROE Act by protecting providers from out-of-state prosecution and allowing later-term abortions in cases where the baby will struggle to survive after birth without “extraordinary medical interventions,” the bill states. 

“I don’t think we fully thought for the life of us that [the overturn] would actually happen, but we had to be proactive in making sure that our laws codified Roe v. Wade,” Michlewitz said. 

Codifying Roe through the passage of a state or federal law secures a person’s access to an abortion. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill to codify Roe, but the bill is unlikely to pass in the Republican majority senate. 

Because of Massachusetts’ steps to protect abortion access, students at Emerson feel a sense of security. When Attaway and Hillis found out about the overturn, they reflected on what it was like to be college students in Boston.

“We definitely started thinking about [how] we were really grateful to go to school here,” Attaway said. “We know that Massachusetts supports us as women … in a way that Texas doesn’t.” 

Drummond agreed and said, “When it comes to abortion … I definitely feel safer in Boston.” 

She added that her friends in Arkansas don’t have this sense of safety, recalling how she had to help one of her friends, who thought they may have needed an abortion, make travel plans to out-of-state abortion clinics.

People from Arkansas must travel to states like Illinois, where abortion is legal up to the point of viability, or to Kansas, where abortion is legal up to 21 weeks and six days. For many, an eight-hour drive to an abortion clinic simply isn’t an option. 

Illinois has been increasing its abortion services even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, with a Planned Parenthood opened near the Missouri border in 2019 and another opened by the Wisconsin border in 2020. The number of out-of-state abortions in Illinois has been increasing since 2014, and is predicted to rise exponentially now that Roe is overturned, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Reproductive health resources at Emerson

In consideration of the post-Roe landscape, the college has implemented new measures to improve access to reproductive care.

Michelle Gaseau, senior director of strategic communications and media relations, said the college is preparing an official response by taking action in a “concrete way.” This includes covering the cost of transportation to other states for students on Emerson’s health insurance who are seeking reproductive health resources, Gaseau said. 

“The college’s health services staff at the Emerson Wellness Center have long supported the reproductive rights of our students, and are working to gather updated information to support community members most impacted by the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Gaseau said. 

Currently, on-campus clinicians can prescribe students oral birth control pills, birth control patches, and birth control rings. For IUDs or birth control implants, students are referred to clinics in Boston. Students are advised to purchase emergency contraception like Plan B over-the-counter, but clinicians can prescribe it if students want to get costs covered by insurance. Students seeking an abortion are referred to clinics in Boston.

While some schools like Boston University released an official statement immediately in response to the overturn, Emerson did not. However, a week after the Dobbs decision was released, Emerson Today, the college’s press website, published an article featuring several professors and their remarks on the negative impact of the Court’s reversal. 

Lisa Viveiros, associate director of the Emerson Wellness Center, wrote to The Beacon that the Wellness Center is working to update the reproductive resources information available to students. The change in communication could be vital for students who are not attuned to campus goings-on. 

“I have heard nothing, absolutely nothing [about a response to the overturn],” Hillis said. “I’m not involved in a lot of on-campus stuff, or the places where I would find out more information about Emerson’s policies on it.”

Attaway said support for reproductive health has been strong among students, even if the college’s response seemed underwhelming.

“I think our initiatives post-Roe v. Wade are very student-driven, which I think is just Emerson culture in general. Our students are going to look out for each other,” Attaway said.  

Some student groups worked before the reversal of Roe to expand access to reproductive resources on campus, and are now ramping up their efforts. Since 2019, Emerson Flows has placed period products in all bathrooms. This year, Little Building resident assistants are providing condoms to students. Emerson Flows is looking to get the college to provide period products in all campus bathrooms.

Emerson students’ concerns about reproductive health echo those across other college campuses.

Students around the country have been lobbying for Plan B vending machines on their campuses, a trend that began about a decade ago nationally and gained further popularity post-Roe. Tufts and Northeastern universities installed machines this fall. Before the overturn, Boston University installed one in March and Brandeis University in 2019. 

Incorporating conversations about abortion into the curriculum

Nancy Allen, a senior executive-in-residence currently teaching a Sex, Society, and Health class at Emerson, emphasized that access to abortion is a deeply intersectional issue. Restricted access disproportionately impacts people of color, low-income individuals, LGBTQ+ groups, people with disabilities, and young people—groups that have historically grappled with discrimination in the U.S. healthcare system. 

Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, Allen taught about the theoretical implications of debates around sex and sexuality. Now, she tailors her lessons in response to harsh realities. 

“I think the difference between the spring and now is that it’s no longer theoretical to students,” Allen said. “Students are seeing those connections before they’ve walked in the door, and I’m merely confirming their worst fears.”

Robin Danzak, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, plans to address the effect of today’s post-Roe society in Emerson’s health and social change major, which the college will launch next fall. 

“We’ll be … looking at how systems and policies impact community health, individual health, and perpetuate the kinds of inequities that we see in health and access to health care,” Danzak said. 

Danzak also hopes to discuss social determinants of health—an issue that specifically relates to abortion access. In reference to factors like socio-economic status and location, Danzak asks, “How [will] all of those things … impact access to any kind of abortion, or any kind of reproductive choices for women?” 

She fears disparities will grow between individuals with and without access to abortion. Her fears are confirmed by The Turnaway Study—a project by Advancing New Studies in Reproductive Health where 30 abortion providers across the U.S. were asked to select 1,000 abortion-seeking women to be studied over 10 years. These women were interviewed to compare the mental health, physical health, and socioeconomic effects of receiving an abortion versus carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. 

“The main finding of The Turnaway Study is that receiving an abortion does not harm the health and wellbeing of women, but in fact, being denied an abortion results in worse financial, health and family outcomes,” according to the study’s website.

While sitting in on one of Allen’s classes, Danzak provided students with statistics on abortion to contextualize the issue. She included that about one in four women in the U.S. has an abortion by the age of 45. In 2019, most abortions were received by individuals who had already given birth and had not had an abortion before. Allen also noted that the rate of abortions in the U.S. has generally declined since 1981, with exceptions such as an 8% increase in abortions between 2017-2020. 

Allen said this recent increase may be because of expanded Medicaid coverage, increased private donations to abortion funds, COVID-19 disruptions, and cuts to contraceptive funding during the Trump administration. These cuts were part of Trump’s steps to weaken federal programs that support reproductive health, including Title X. 

Nelli Sargsyan, an associate professor of anthropology and feminist studies at Emerson, plans to integrate conversations about systems of domination and their impact in her classes with a feminist lens.

“Power relations [and] inequities are always at the forefront of reproductive justice,” Sargsyan said.

Her classes will continue to focus on challenging oppressive systems. Sargsyan provided the example of showing students a map of where abortion services are accessible in the U.S. to give students practical knowledge on navigating abortion access inequities. Sargsyan also wants to create a sense of hope among her students. She encourages students to find local groups of like-minded people.

She wants students to not focus on despair, but rather, on ways to counter the effects of the overturn.

“There are different ways to push back and resist, and it’s not going to be forever,” Sargsyan said. “It’s a thing that I want younger folks to keep in mind.” 

Sargsyan’s optimism can be translated into action, like voting in November’s general elections, something Allen says is important for the issue of abortion rights in Massachusetts and across the country. Abortion is on the ballot in many states this November. Kentucky is asking voters whether to amend the state’s constitution to protect abortion rights, while other states like Vermont, Michigan, and California, will vote to decide whether to amend state constitutions to protect the right to abortion. 

“The ability of the legislatures to craft legislation to protect reproductive rights versus to further erode it is on the ballot in November,” Allen said. 

Members across the Emerson community responded to Roe’s overturn with feelings of devastation, but said they feel motivated to ensure reproductive rights will be secured again. This means taking action on a local level. 

Both Attaway and Hillis are voting out of state in the Texas general elections this November, excited at the prospect of creating change with a new governor. 

“It’s finally something that we’re really passionate about,” Attaway said. “We need change for [our] government. If that happened for us in Texas, I think I would feel a lot better about the future of America.” 

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