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Reproductive rights in the spotlight following Supreme Court ruling

ASU professor weighs in on social impact of Roe v. Wade being overturned

Mako Fitts Ward - Assistant Professor and Director of the Social Transformation Lab

Mako Fitts Ward, director of ASU's Social Transformation Lab

July 01, 2022

On June 24, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade was officially overturned, ending the federal protection on abortion, which leaves the legality of abortions in the hands of each individual state.

The new ruling has opened arguments about the interpretation of the law and whether suggested limitations are constitutional.

Mako Fitts Ward, director of the Social Transformation Lab and assistant professor in African and African American studies and women and gender studies in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation, weighs in on the impact the ruling could have on various communities.

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: In what ways could the Roe v. Wade ruling impact ASU students, the community or the United States?

Answer: While the legal issues of the case are and will continue to be debated, the underlying ethical issue is bodily autonomy and the role of the government in controlling the right of a woman or birthing person to … make informed health decisions in consultation with health care provider. Unwanted pregnancies are higher among working class women and women of color, so abortion restrictions disproportionately impact these (individuals).

For college students, while middle to upper-class students have access to the resources and social capital to travel to states without abortion bans, unwanted childbirths will severely impact our working class and women of color students and (could) disrupt their college completion. Black women are three times more likely than white women to die during childbirth or shortly thereafter. Pregnancy-related deaths are estimated to increase by 21% nationwide, and 33% among Black women. Research shows that unwanted pregnancies is a leading reason why women leave the university, and they often do not return or return much later in life.

There are also Title IX implications around protecting the rights of pregnant students. It’s the university’s responsibility to protect their right to return to campus post-pregnancy, that professors understand their role in creating the conditions for them to return and to prevent undue harm and harassment. Given prevailing negative cultural stereotypes about young mothers, especially young women of color, universities must be prepared to protect (their) students from harassment and bias.

Q: Why is this issue important?

A: According to the U.N. Human Rights Council, “Denying access to health services that only women require, including abortion, is linked to discrimination and can constitute gender-based violence, torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” This is based on the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’s (CEDAW) recommendation that “it is discriminatory for a State party to refuse to legally provide for the performance of certain reproductive health services for women.”

Given … that the U.S. is the only democracy in the world that has not ratified CEDAW, we should anticipate more restrictions coming at the state level.

… In the concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas, (he) laid the foundation to overturn the protection of rights of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals writ large, including the right to contraception, the right to engage in same-sex sexual activity, and the right of same-gender loving couples to marry. 

There are other consequences to the ruling, most notably that women and birthing persons will experience the motherhood penalty even more severely.

Q: There are many sides to the debate as to the constitutionality of the ruling – do you see any possibility that reproductive rights will return to being federally protected in the future? If not, what are some of the future implications of this ruling?

A: While there are stop-gap measures like executive orders and stricter HIPAA enforcement to prevent medical workers from reporting people they suspect of having abortions to law enforcement, the only pathway for full legal protections is for Congress to pass comprehensive abortion-rights legislation, which protects access to abortion, contraception and overall reproductive health services like breast cancer screenings and HIV tests.    

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