One of the most memorable moments in a typical 1L student’s constitutional law class is the discussion around Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court’s treatment of the often controversial rights surrounding reproductive health and wellbeing. On November 13th, the students at Temple Law had the opportunity to hear directly from Sarah Weddington (lead counsel on Roe v. Wade) and Kathryn Kolbert (lead counsel on Planned Parenthood v. Casey). The panel, which also featured Professors Kim Mutcherson, Elizabeth Kukura, and David Cohen, focused on the questions presented by moderator Professor Kathryn Stanchi’s book Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Opinoins of the United States Supreme Court. The book poses the question “what would United States Supreme Court opinions look like if key decisions on gender issues were written with a feminist perspective?” It seeks to answer this question through a series of rewritten Supreme Court opinions on issues of gender, penned by scholars and lawyers.
The panel began with Professor Kim Mutcherson, professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden and author of the book’s rewritten Roe. Professor Mutcherson began her discussion by establishing the reproductive justice framework, a movement created by Black women that advocates for the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Professor Mutcherson described the Roe decision as a “good outcome but wrapped in a lot of problematic reasoning.” Her rewriting sought to imagine what the decision would have looked like had it taken the reality of rights versus access into account and centered its decision on the values of reproductive justice.
The panel next heard from Sarah Weddington and Kathryn Kolbert. In addition to discussing the legal framework of the fight for reproductive rights, they also spoke to their experiences arguing these landmark cases in front of the Supreme Court. Weddington and Kolbert also spoke to the need for continuing the movement and continuing to protect our current rights. Both attorneys discussed the ways in which people suffered when abortion was illegal, particularly in terms of health effects from unsafe procedures.
Next on the panel was Professor Elizabeth Kukura, who spoke to her research on the topic of obstetric violence, a term which encompasses various negative experiences individuals may have during childbirth, from abuse to coercion to disrespect. Professor Kukura shared a story of a woman who was forced to have a C-section despite her wishes during childbirth, an issue that has been garnering more attention recently. She noted that although the empirical evidence on obstetric violence is currently limited, it often has a disparate impact on women of color, low-income women, and women from religious minorities who want larger families. Professor Kukura noted that, often, pregnant individuals are seen as self-sacrificing figures, who are expected to alter their levels of autonomy, dignity, and comfort. Often, these stereotypes can contribute to obstetric violence, which places the needs and desires of the pregnant person as second to the opinion of the healthcare provider.
Lastly, Professor David Cohen, law professor at Drexel University and author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, wrapped up the panel. He challenged the attendees to consider who is actually being affected when reproductive rights are infringed, noting that there are many people who will always have access to safe abortions due to economic privilege. Professor Cohen noted that the laws that are implemented most often severely impact those without the means to travel or comply with the various restrictions.
The panel encompassed various issues and types of expertise on the topic of reproductive justice, and ultimately provided students with a unique perspective. While law students throughout the country read the Supreme Court cases that shaped the treatment of reproductive rights in the United States, it is not every day that students have the chance to hear from a panel like this one. As a student pursuing a career dedicated to improving access to healthcare services, specifically within the realm of reproductive rights, it was moving to see how far we have come as a nation and how far we still have to go. Many lawyers have come before us to shape the current status of various issues, from reproductive rights to criminal justice to civil rights and more. Now, as soon-to-be lawyers, it is our duty to continue these fights, to zealously advocate for our passions within the wide arena of justice.