Life after Roe
Despite entrenched divisions, experts on both sides of the abortion debate gathered at Radcliffe to illuminate the nuances of the issue—and perhaps find common ground across the divide.
Even before the 1972 landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the issue had begun to divide the nation. For many, the court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the constitutionally protected right to an abortion has only deepened that divide.
While it's widely accepted that the key to a healthy democracy is vigorous debate, many struggle with how to even begin a productive conversation around such a difficult issue. On the opening night of a two-day January conference sponsored by Harvard Radcliffe Institute to mark Roe’s 50th anniversary, there were signs that simply creating a space for dialogue and respect could be a critical first step.
During the Thursday evening discussion, activists with widely different viewpoints took the stage. Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization representing people who’ve had abortions, explained how the stigma had led her to keep her abortion secret for years. “I was told that I shouldn’t talk about it,” said Sherman, “that I should be ashamed.”
Catherine Davis, the pro-life founder and president of The Restoration Project, surprisingly empathized.
“My colleague is right,” said Davis, who told a hushed crowd she’d had two abortions when she was younger. “We can’t openly talk about it because we’ve placed abortion in this category that on the one hand it’s untouchable and on the other hand it’s condemning. But the truth lies in the middle.”
It was only a fleeting moment of agreement over the course of an often uncomfortable hour and a half filled with pushbacks, competing perspectives, and hard realities. But for some, it was a start.
The event, “The Age of Roe: The Past, Present, and Future of Abortion in America,” was in keeping with Radcliffe’s mission to bring together experts from various fields to spark creative projects, new ways of approaching intractable problems, and visions of our future. For two days, authors, ethicists, grassroots organizers, medical professionals, and scholars from across disciplines and around the world gathered on Radcliffe’s campus to explore topics central to the abortion debate, including personal narratives, partisan politics, American history, and the role of religion. They also explored possible paths forward.
Changing hearts and minds was never the goal of a conference devoted to a charged topic that touches all areas of American life, said the event’s main organizers, Jane Kamenksy, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library and Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Mary Ziegler, Martin Luther King Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law and a leading scholar on the history of Roe and its aftermath. Instead, both said they simply hoped to invite participants with different views and areas of expertise to come to the discussion with an open mind, willing to listen.
“With that willingness comes a capacity for surprise and further curiosity and discovery,” said Kamensky prior to the event. “I hope everyone will come away saying that they heard something that they didn't know, or learned a valuable framing that they hadn't anticipated or that they connected with someone that they would like to collaborate with.”
Small seeds of connection peppered the conference.
Thursday’s third speaker, Getty Israel, insisted she wasn’t at Radcliffe to take sides but to advocate for a better way forward. “I'm not here to argue for or against abortion. I'm here pleading for partners, saying let’s come to the table, and let's figure out a plan,” said Israel, the founder of Sister in Birth, Inc., a holistic women’s health clinic in Jackson, Mississippi.
Israel said she sees abortion as part of “the overall solution or strategy” to complex reproductive health issues, along with contraception, the “education that goes along with that contraception,” adequate health and social supports for women during and after pregnancy, access to community college, and better job opportunities—all aimed at helping reduce rates of unplanned pregnancies, birth disparities, maternal and infant mortality, and poverty.
“I’m really tired of reporters contacting me to talk about abortion, to talk about extending Medicaid postpartum, when there’s so many other issues that are driving our maternity crisis. I'm at ground zero. Help me out. That’s what I'm looking for out of this whole event.”
She found a willing ear in MT Dávila, chair of religious and theologies studies and associate professor of practice at Merrimack College. During a panel discussion on Friday focused on race and class, Dávila, a theological ethicist, a pro-life Catholic, and the mother of four, called it tragic that the culture wars have produced such narrow moral language around abortion.
That myopic view ignores, she said, “the enslavement of peoples and the capitalizing of black and brown bodies, ruthless government policies that permitted medical experimentation on whole segments of the population” as well as the rights of indigenous peoples, the effects of environmental catastrophes, air pollution, the response to migrant families on the border, and a range of unjust policies past and present that disproportionately harm “some of the most economically and racially vulnerable communities and families in the nation.”
Yet that history of injustice, she said, helps her “reach out to others whose views are completely different from mine, but who are subjected to the same unjust and violent systems.”
Dávila found a kindred spirit in Israel, she said, and her desire to find “partners in changing the conversation and the terms of public discourse on sexual and reproductive justice. That's what I hope to do as well.”
Daniel K. Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement before Roe (Oxford University Press, 2016), is “morally opposed to abortion” but doesn’t agree with “every type of abortion restriction or policy promoted under the banner of pro-life.”
Williams, who also helped plan the symposium and spoke during the event about the evolution of pro-life Evangelicalism, said he felt welcomed at the conference and appreciated hearing how different countries regulate abortion. He also welcomed the opportunity to more fully consider the reproductive justice movement—the feminist framework that posits women should have a right to have a child, a right not to have a child, and the right to raise a child in a healthy and safe environment—and some of the differences and goals it shares with the pro-life movement.
Exhibit Reevaluates the Legacy of Roe v. Wade
The Radcliffe conference developed in tandem with the Schlesinger Library exhibition curated by Ziegler. In keeping with the Library’s mission to document all sides of history, the exhibit features various viewpoints, drawing heavily from the collection of Bill Baird, the Massachusetts-based reproductive rights advocate, and from materials collected by the pro-life activist Joseph R. Stanton that were entrusted to the Library by the Catholic organization Sisters of Life.
For Ziegler, offering up a specific “conclusion or intervention” was never her intent. Instead, she hopes viewers engage with the material on their own terms, mindful that the Dobbs decision has muddied the question of whether the age of Roe is over at all.
“I think we're at a fork in the road in terms of how the popular politics of abortion are going to proceed, in terms of how each social movement is going to approach the issue,” she said in an interview. “I think it's more a moment of uncertainty.”
The author of numerous books but a first-time curator, Ziegler approached the exhibit the way she approaches writing history, she said, by “showing not telling, letting the people in the past speak, and letting readers decide what they want to make of it.” She also embraced the Library’s goal of elevating voices that are too often left out of the conversation, highlighting a series of letters written by those opposed to abortion and those seeking one:
“We wanted to ask: ‘How would you see the battle differently if you look from the perspective of these people who we often forget?’”
Imagining Ways Forward
”Talking across as well as within our hidden tribes is, at its core, the work of democracy and of the civil renewal that we need so badly in the United States,” said Kamensky in opening remarks for Friday’s daylong session.
The nine remaining speakers, she explained, had been asked not to debate but instead to imagine “what the state of play might be, could be, can’t be, should be, as we move forward.”
Key to looking ahead, said Evelynn Hammonds, the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is looking back for a deep understanding of the “the history of the long and persistent efforts to control the fertility and reproduction of black women by white men at the center of our narratives.”
“Bringing the history that has been erased to visibility and interrogating the current backlash to such efforts is key to understanding how we got to where we are today,” she added, “and it also amplifies what advocates of abortion rights need to consider going forward from this moment.”
The abortion care provider Monica McLemore, a registered nurse and professor in the Department of Child, Family, and Population Health Nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing, said she finds hope in a version of reproductive justice that supports liberation as its goal, one that embraces such things as the returning of land to indigenous peoples; prenatal, birth, and postpartum care; mental healthcare; the end of police, prisons, and detention centers “designed to harm black and brown bodies and break up our families”; and abortion care for anyone who needs it.
“Reproductive justice leads us to new futures that we don’t yet know but we dare to imagine,” said McLemore.
Erika Bachiochi—a pro-life feminist and fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington, DC, think tank—pointed to the lessons that could be learned from 19th-century feminists and their appreciation for the “existentially interdependent relation of pregnant mother to unborn child.”
According to Bachiochi, it should come as no surprise that some men and employers continue to “treat the arrival of a child as a woman’s inconvenient and burdensome choice, when 50 years of constitutional law treated unborn children that way too.”
“In my view, a half century of privileging abortion rights as a means to women’s equality, liberty, and well-being has obviated the need for a total cultural, familial, and economic transformation on behalf of mothers, especially poor mothers and their children, and a deep societal wide recognition of the reality of human interdependence the 19th-century women’s rights advocates had only just begun.”
Video: A Chorus of Views
Following the event, Bachiochi said she’d had a several conversations during the symposium with Louise King, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School and a physician whose practice includes abortion services, about the possibility of bringing pro-choice and pro-life medical professionals together.
“I think that there is more agreement on the part of OBGYNs about the importance of intervening [in a pregnancy] when there are grave complications, especially to a woman’s life and health,” said Bachiochi. Getting those people in the same room, she added, “would be really beneficial.”
Radcliffe’s two-day conference mirrored conversations about abortion and abortion rights that have been happening across the country over the past half-century, said Ziegler, and that will continue in the years to come. In her closing remarks, she noted how such deeply complex discussions reach well beyond the realm of the US Supreme Court, beyond one single academic discipline, and beyond one ideological point of view.
“If we were to understand where we have been and where we were going, it’s important to hear the people with whom we don’t agree,” she said. “It may be that what they have to offer confirms even more firmly our own passions and our commitments to our views of justice. It may be that we change our minds. It may be simply that we know more accurately who is in this ‘We the People’ that has been conducting this conversation for the past 50 years and more.”
Colleen Walsh is a freelance writer.