In the lobby of Harvard Law School, the alma mater of the man who wrote the decision in Roe v. Wade and of four current justices of the Supreme Court, a group of students set up folding tables with laptops and hand-lettered signs reading “Abortion is healthcare.” The action was one of more than 60 taking place on college and high school campuses on October 6 as part of a National Day of Student Action for Reproductive Justice. From West Virginia and Florida to California and New York, students walked out of class, rallied, or otherwise demonstrated in support of abortion access and gender-affirming care. Coordinated by the Graduate Student Action Network and Young Democratic Socialists of America, the protests directed demands at individual institutions: from student health insurance in South Dakota to on-campus medication abortion services in New York. “Walkouts during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’90s had a tremendous impact,” Leena Yumeen, cochair of YDSA and a student at Columbia, told me. The October 6 action was “the first step, hopefully, in a series of mobilizations that will build us back that power that students had.” In an early win, Barnard College announced on the morning of the actions that it would offer medication abortion on campus beginning next year.
The day of action is the latest sign that a new generation, emboldened by the overturn of Roe, is surging into political organizing. After the Supreme Court ruling in June, Rachael Kuintzle, a PhD student at CalTech, said she realized “I have to stop waiting for someone else to do something; I have to do something.” She began e-mailing graduate student leaders across the country to create a forum for mobilizing in defense of reproductive health care services. The newly formed Graduate Student Action Network drafted a letter of demands to Congress, including federally mandated sex education, and called on President Biden to declare a public health emergency on abortion. YDSA had crafted its own set of demands, including that Congress end the filibuster, pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, and pass Medicare for All with free abortion and gender-affirming coverage. When the groups discovered they were both planning actions in October, they joined forces.
With federal recourse limited, the real power of the October 6 day of action was in the demands directed at schools. In the pristine lobby of Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School, student Morgan Carmen called on her peers to sign a petition demanding a reproductive justice law clinic and curriculum and a full-time professor dedicated to the subject. By 11 am, the activists had gathered more than 300 signatures. “It’s not that controversial,” Carmen said. The same rules apply here as in the rest of abortion rights organizing: Reproductive rights are popular, but that popularity doesn’t automatically translate to power. The students say their predecessors at Harvard have been demanding these resources in one form or another for 10 years.
But now, “I think the urgency really is heightened,” said Kirin Gupta, copresident of the Harvard Law Student Alliance for Reproductive Justice. “There’s going to be a lot of complex, really difficult litigation,” said Vandana Apte, the other copresident. She and her peers face an abortion rights landscape that includes novel legal strategies like Texas’s SB 8, which empowers citizen vigilantes to enforce a six-week abortion ban through civil lawsuits. “I think it’s really important that we are advocating for classes and professors and clinics that’ll teach us how to navigate that.” Two members of the Cambridge City Council along with the city’s mayor and vice-mayor are sponsoring a resolution to put the Cambridge City Council on record in support of the Harvard Law students’ demands. (Harvard Law did not respond to a request for comment.)
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Harvard has hired visiting professors who are leaders in the field of reproductive health law, including Mary Ziegler last year, and Michele Goodwin this coming spring. But while it has an animal law clinic and a religious freedom clinic with an instructor who worked at the Christian right law firm First Liberty Institute, there’s no clinic for reproductive rights. That’s a problem for students like Sam Nagler, who plans to pursue a career in that field. Facing obstacles reminiscent of what medical students navigate to get abortion training, she has been trying to set up an independent clinic. Meanwhile, she noted, Jack Goldsmith, who teaches a class on federal courts, invited the architect of the Texas six-week abortion ban SB 8, Jonathan Mitchell, to speak to his class in April. (Leah Litman, a law professor at the University of Michigan and co-host of the Strict Scrutiny podcast, addressed the class via Zoom the same week.)
“We have professors that are literally inviting Jonathan Mitchell, who went out of his way to find the most foolproof method of dismantling reproductive rights, and we don’t even have a reproductive justice class to try to learn how to fight back against that,” Nagler said. “It really does feel like Harvard has a preference for one side over the other.”
It takes a certain courage to cause even a polite disruption in a place like Harvard Law School, where students “get told constantly here, especially in class and in conversation, that we need to assume good intent, and respect everybody’s opinion,” student Lisa Fanning told me. The imperative to conform at Harvard Law is palpable. “There is a huge amount of pressure on students to not protest,” said student Tala Alfoqaha. But the political moment has changed that calculus: “Harvard students are showing a greater appetite to be disruptive and to dissent.”
As we were talking, an administrator came over to speak to the students. She’d heard a rumor that they were planning to disrupt a Federalist Society event taking place in the same building. The Federalist Society, which has chapters at more than 200 law schools, is credited with handpicking Supreme Court appointees for Republican presidents. But these students were focused on their petition and had no plans to disrupt the event. While assuring the students she was there to protect their right to free speech, the administrator gave a convoluted warning against treading outside the lines of polite dissent. Her concerns seemed to stem from a walkout staged the previous week during a Harvard Law School Students for Life event at which students rose en masse and silently filed out of the room, leaving rows of empty seats.
At the end of the day, the students announced they had collected 800 signatures, the vast majority from current students. “Harvard Law students, alongside the United States populace as a whole, resoundingly…stand on the side of reproductive justice,” Alfoqaha said, speaking in the lobby after the Students for Life event. “Disrespectfully, we dissent.”