Friday, February 3, 2023

‘Uncharted Territory’: What the Overturn of Roe v. Wade Could Mean for Colleges

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The news had been anticipated, but it was still jarring. The U.S. Supreme Court will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the almost half-century-old legal precedent that established access to abortion as protected by the Constitution, according to a draft opinion that was leaked to Politico and published on Monday night.

The justices are slated to issue their final ruling on the relevant case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, this summer. If it strikes down Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case that largely reaffirmed it, more than a dozen states would quickly criminalize abortion and a dozen others would follow. Many institutions in those states, including colleges, would be left scrambling to adapt. As instructors already report striking levels of disenchantment among students — some of it due to life events getting in the way of education — abortion restrictions could, in some cases, add more complications to tumultuous private lives. Medical schools could be left puzzled about what they’re allowed to teach. And, in the years to come, colleges may find themselves struggling to attract top talent as professors balk at moving to states with aggressive abortion laws on the books.

“I know that an unplanned pregnancy derailed me from college,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of an advocacy group called the Yellowhammer Fund. “When I got pregnant, I had to stop going to college.”

Bertram Roberts, whose pronouns are “they/them,” and whose organization provides financial support to people seeking abortions in Alabama, Mississippi, and other parts of the South, worried about future students like them. Research has shown that about one in four women are expected to have an abortion in their lifetime. The most common demographic profile of someone receiving an abortion is a familiar one to institutions of higher education: a woman in her 20s who has attended some college.

I know it is very hard to go to school while you’re pregnant.

Bertram Roberts already had three children when they found out they were pregnant again, and decided to put off pursuing a degree for a few years. Bertram Roberts later attended community college and then transferred to Jackson State University, where they completed an undergraduate degree.

“Not everybody’s going to drop out of school because they’re pregnant,” Bertram Roberts said. “But I know it is very hard to go to school while you’re pregnant.”

Messages like that may prove alarming to educators in states with “trigger laws” that would automatically ban most abortions if the Supreme Court overturns Roe and Casey. Instructors have this semester reported widespread disenchantment and disengagement among students. Much of it is due to personal tumult they have suffered during the pandemic. For some students, the sudden criminalization of abortion could add one more element of stress, not to mention practical hurdles, for those who want the procedure.

Low-income students are particularly vulnerable right now. The National College Attainment Network reported last week that renewals of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — seen as a proxy for college enrollment — dropped in March by 15.6 percent from last year among Pell Grant-eligible students. For people already teetering on the brink of dropping out, local prohibitions on abortion — which is most common among low-income people — could hypothetically contribute to the decision to leave college.

Some instructors could feel the effects of new legislation at their workplaces. Pamela Merritt, executive director of Medical Students for Choice, worried about doctors-in-training who wish to learn how to provide safe abortions for their patients. Merritt said her organization’s first goal will be to press medical schools to be clear on whether they teach abortion training, so students can make informed decisions.

“It is legal, ethical, and necessary that they incorporate abortion education and training into their curriculum,” Merritt said. “Teaching about abortion and even training when it is on an apparatus, when it is in a classroom setting — that’s legal whether abortion is illegal or not.”

Medical schools are not required by their accreditors to teach it, she said. Some do and some don’t. Many students wish to choose a medical school that offers this training, or is at least in a state that will not criminalize it. But it’s not always clear how medical schools handle the subject, Merritt said.

For now, Merritt said she reminds her organization’s members that abortion is legal in all 50 states. But, she said, overturning Roe v. Wade is “uncharted territory” and she does not know for sure what it will mean for medical education.

If Roe is overturned, some effects on higher education will be immediate while others will take time. One possible result would be the alienation of red-state colleges that compete for top talent.

That trend is already happening. In the last year, some states have enacted laws prohibiting certain speech in college classrooms. Several states in the Southeast have just this year weakened public colleges’ tenure protections. Moves like these have left faculty and staff members wondering whether they want to consider either staying on campuses in Republican-dominated states, or choosing them.

For some, the fall of Roe might be one more reason not to consider taking a job in a state with a “trigger law.”

But most don’t have the luxury of that choice. Barrett Taylor, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas, said people may leave their jobs for higher-education-friendlier states, but most won’t be able to make that kind of move. The job market is still very tight, so if some people do leave, their jobs will very likely be filled by others.

“Look for changes in the composition of the faculty,” Taylor said. “Are they losing people who have the option to leave and replacing them with people who are off the tenure track?” If so, he said, “You’re creating a faculty that’s easier to dismiss, both in the sense of not paying attention to and also fire.”

Overturning Roe, Taylor said, might open the door for lawmakers in some states to add to a climate where people feel uncomfortable talking about or publishing on abortion.

“By taking something that was settled law and unsettling it, there’s one more thing to fight about, one more thing for legislatures who are interested in shaping the curriculum — one more arena for that to happen,” Taylor said.

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