The end of Roe and what it might mean for American higher education

I do appeal to educators across the nation to think, seriously and urgently: With the landscape for women’s reproductive rights changed, what will your institution do to prevent the erosion of women’s hard-won achievements in higher education?

Jo Ellen Parker

This morning the United States Supreme Court ruled against Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision which legalized abortion for the nation.

I have many thoughts and reactions to this. I view this Dobbs decision as a disaster for America, especially for women.  As someone who’s always been pro-choice, many of those thoughts and reactions involve swearing. I have also spent the day supporting my outraged family, while trying to help as many friends as I can. We are planning next steps of various kinds. I have also been trying to share helpful information online.

(Information: Wired has a post-Roe resources article.  We Won’t Go Back hosts a map of planned, upcoming protests. Amnesty International USA offers a web page to help you easily create letters to governors, as well as a community organizing service, I think.  And Jia Tolentino has a rich, impassioned, powerful, and sobering article.)

Now, in this post, I want to do something else. I’d like to contribute what I can to the crisis. I’m not a lawyer, nor a medical professional, nor a politician. What I am is a futurist, with knowledge of colleges and universities.  I’d like to bring those forecasting skills to bear, and try to get people thinking about one particular part of the problem: what the end of Roe might mean for higher education.

Caveat: this is a post written in haste, in response to a rapidly emerging situation. It does not mean to be definitive. Instead, the goal here is to offer some initial forecasting attempts, and to spark discussion.  I hope to learn from people’s responses.

1: EMERGING CONTEXT

First, to explore that question requires sketching its emerging national context, and that seems likely to involve a strong political division of states. Already a number of states have issued laws which ban or otherwise restrict abortion severely. At the same time other states have reaffirmed their support for women’s access to reproductive care.  This divide has strong red versus blue culture war divides, of course:

abortion divide of states AP 2022 June

Note the purple states.  They might not take steps at that level. Some, such as Virginia (where I live) are not clearly Republican or Democratic in terms of overall political settlement.  For now, these are potential battlefields. This leaves us with three groups of American states.  Extrapolating, we could imagine that tripartite division hardening over the next two years as governments and activists fight for their respective sides.

Those states don’t exist in isolation from each other, of course. State governments may try to extend their anti-abortion policies and practices to other states, and some have already done so. This can involve trying to block shipment of abortion-related medication or personal travel across state lines.  The Texas abortion vigilante law has national scope.  Attempts to use digital data for surveillance (cf the Tolentino article, linked above) tend to involve technology providers based out of state.  Clearly this interstate dimension is a realm for further struggle.

The post-Roe political landscape also includes cities.  We should expect some cities to line up with their states on abortion, as we’ve seen with New York City’s mayor proclaiming his support for women’s right to choose.  The opposite should also occur, with pro-life city governments aligning with pro-life state governments.  Yet we should anticipate splits between municipalities and rural areas versus their capitals, given the contentiousness of this issue and the variety of America’s political culture.  Imagine, say, Austin trying to defy Texas, or eastern Oregon opposing Salem.

Back to the federal level – and here I must hesitate, not being a lawyer, so take this paragraph with a big heaping of salt, but the ruling against Roe‘s privacy argument can open up further rulings against other decisions and laws which also rest on privacy. We should expect pushes to restrict a range of LGBQT+ rights, racial minority protections, and more. These could remain at the state level, continuing the divide mentioned above, or rise to SCOTUS decisions at the national.

It seems likely that national, state, and local abortion struggles will continue for the next year and more, which carries them into the 2024 national election cycle.  Depending on how that turns out, the winners sworn into office in early 2025 may have the power to seriously revise national and state abortion policies – i.e., a Democratic party victory could see an effort to return to Roe in some way, while a Republican win might see national anti-abortion laws seriously considered in Congress.

The politics around this intensified abortion struggle can play out in many ways.  Historically, as least since the 1970s, they have included peaceful protest, armed assault, political organizing, terrorism, cultural artifacts, and more.  Perhaps this struggle will expand, even becoming more violent.  Today president Biden called for all sides to be peaceful, but for pro-choice people to aim their energies at November elections.  Maybe we will collectively heed that call.  I’ve forecast scaled up unrest previously, since 2008, yet reality has tended to not follow suit.

In this context, far too quickly sketched out, colleges and universities will continue to operate and academics consider how to respond and act in a post-Roe world.

II: HIGHER EDUCATION AFTER ROE

How do the complex systems of individual campuses intersect with this legal development and all of its effects?  How does the end of a national abortion right impact the trends shaping higher education?

The indispensable Jo Ellen Parker gives us key themes to work with.  We can start with enrollment. Students who can’t access abortions are more likely than others to drop out of classes or not enroll:

One predictable consequence of legal bans on, or restricted access to, abortion and possibly contraception will be reduced educational attainment for women faced with unplanned pregnancy and parenthood, injured by illegal abortions, or prosecuted and convicted for terminating a pregnancy.

Research clearly shows that when women can choose how to manage their reproductive lives they are more likely to stay in school and earn degrees. For example, only one-third of student parents enrolled in college complete a degree within six years, compared to one-half of non-parent students.

To the extent that post-Roe state policies prevent women from exercising their right to abortion, the numbers of women will likely decline.  This may start in high school. This is a blight to individual lives and careers.   Low-income women are more likely than their peers to be hit by abortion restrictions, as three sociologists argue in Inside Higher Ed.  Poor women of color, even more so.

It may also depress total enrollment for some institutions, which will have the costs I’ve outlined elsewhere.  As Parker notes, this is a historical change:

Let’s be clear: The sharp increase of women’s participation in higher education in the last half-century has been socially and economically transformative for women, families, and communities.

It came about largely as a result of allowing women to exercise their reproductive rights.

Will we see women’s numbers drop to male levels? (Women outnumber men in higher ed classes by about 3:2 now.)

Enrollment may change further as a result of the Roe decision as students consider where to attend college. How many women will look out of state to avoid local abortion policies?  How many will shun colleges and universities in states mandating reproductive laws the students abhor? Perhaps student applications will align with their abortion politics.  And if the majority of would-be students are pro-choice, will campuses in pro-life states see applications and enrollments drop? As Janet Koven Levit writes, “Prospective students will pause before deciding to live in a state where the legislature radiates an almost obsessive hostility toward women’s reproductive-health-care choices.” From a Teen Vogue article:

“If a state does not tell a young woman that they are entitled to terminate a pregnancy after a rape, I’m not sure I’d be spending my money on education in that state,” [former United States Senator Claire] McCaskill tells Teen Vogue. “It will be interesting to track enrollments at colleges in these states.” McCaskill notes that Washington University in St. Louis “attracts some of the brightest minds in the country.… I wonder how many of those graduates would reconsider staying in Missouri because of what has been created by officeholders with extreme views…”

Similarly, Neil Gluckman mentions that faculty hiring (and presumably retention) could be hit, if colleges and universities have a harder time attracting people to positions in states with strong abortion laws.

On another level, Jo Ellen Parker reminds us that an uptick in pregnant students on campus has costs for that institution:

Women facing unwanted pregnancies who hope to stay in school need specific, and frankly costly, support. If they become parents, these students typically need additional financial aid to support the costs of tuition and a growing family if they are to stay in school. Otherwise, they must sacrifice their long-term educational and earning potential to meet immediate financial needs. They also need reliable, safe, and affordable child care, of course. They need flexible schedules and advisers trained to help them integrate their parental and educational priorities…

Those who become pregnant but do not wish to become parents also need supports to stay in school, including counseling; those damaged by illegal or amateur abortions need medical and mental health care and potentially now legal services.

We need to plan on that increasing level of support now.  And not all campuses are in a flexible financial position to do so easily.  It won’t be easy.

Moreover, academic institutions may face conflicts between individual staff, faculty, and students’ decisions and the policies issued by those institutions and the governments they’re subjected to.  Consider the range of potential friction points:

Another set of issues emerges when conflicts arise between caring for students and complying with the law. (This is not an unfamiliar conflict to educators, who can face similar challenges around student alcohol consumption and undocumented students.) Each institution, in light of its own mission and circumstances, will face wrenching questions.

Will its student peer advisers be prevented from sharing information with fellow students about abortion services and resources? Will its health services? Will its counselors, protected by confidentiality, be able to share information about reproductive health care in their patients’ best interests as they see it? How will the inevitable protests and activism emanating from campus women’s centers be met? Under laws such as that already in effect in Texas, will colleges and universities encourage or forbid staff from reporting students known, or suspected, to have sought an abortion?

Let me add to that list challenges for campus technologists. How will they respond when, say, a pro-life state government issues requests for student, staff, and faculty data?  As Tolentino argues, dataveillance is now a key part of the abortion struggle:

In the states where abortion has been or will soon be banned, any pregnancy loss past an early cutoff can now potentially be investigated as a crime. Search histories, browsing histories, text messages, location data, payment data, information from period-tracking apps—prosecutors can examine all of it if they believe that the loss of a pregnancy may have been deliberate. Even if prosecutors fail to prove that an abortion took place, those who are investigated will be punished by the process, liable for whatever might be found.

How will a chief information officer respond to a query to find data along these lines?  How might every person in the request chain respond, down to the support techs working with individual machines?

On the flip side, how many academics will use technology to further women’s access to reproductive care?  One option for people needing such care may be telemedicine. Another would be to use blockchain technologies to secure funding and information. Would campus IT face ethical challenges, caught between pro-choice users of such tech and a pro-life government?  These campus technology conflicts could occur across the nation.

Tensions may also occur within the two primary domains of higher education, teaching and research.  As Neil Gluckman pointed out in May, health care and public health curriculum may be impacted: “Medical schools could be left puzzled about what they’re allowed to teach.”

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.”

Within the domain of teaching, it should surprise nobody if a new wave of student activism breaks forth. As ACE official Terry Hartle predicts,  “A lot of students will be very unhappy that something they believed to be a fundamental right is being taken away from them.”

Another source for potential friction is academics speaking out about Roe and what comes next.  We know from a generation’s worth of Web experience that faculty, staff, and students can express themselves online in ways which irk their administrations.  There is plenty of room for campus populations to write, speak, and otherwise communicate abortion positions and observations that will raise challenges.  These utterances may occur, or be aimed off-campus, such as on Facebook or Tiktok, as well as on campus grounds and infrastructure.

Such discussion is already occurring, unsurprisingly.  Michigan State University quickly hosted an exchange of views between various faculty (from law, philosophy, and politics) and some administrators about the issue. University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds blogged his take on the decision soon after its publication. Faculty in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health issued (I think) a joint statementFIRE reports on one university investigating a student Zoom chat (I think) for potential harassment charges during a heated discussion of abortion.  Back in May students at some institutions marched and issued pro-choice demands.

Will institutions take public positions in favor of or opposing abortion rights?  There will be pressure to do so from parts of each academic community.  Individual university and college leaders may feel that they must do so for their own reasons of conscience, religion, or politics. Michigan State University’s president issued a firm statement in favor of “reproductive health care [a]s a basic human right.” Perhaps public institutions in strongly pro-choice or pro-life states will sense they have some room to make a properly aligned proclamation, or even feel politically encouraged to do so.

Beyond position statements, institutions themselves may try to avoid, defer, or otherwise deflect local political decisions on abortion, now that the Supreme Court has devolved those choices. The University of Michigan has already started up a task force to support its women in case Lansing enforces its century-old abortion ban. An Oberlin College doula group started planning on expanding services for the community.  Southern New Hampshire University’s president LeBlanc offered this support to their faculty and staff:

Against these tendencies is, of course, academia’s long tradition of trying to be apolitical. (Here’s one argument.)

Will there be boycotts?  One NYU historian urged colleagues to avoid professional work in anti-choice states:

 

How many professional groups will make such a decision?

Things can go beyond boycotts, rhetoric, and task forces. They always have that potential. We should consider the possibilities for unrest. Violence is also possible. Historically, campuses have sometimes hosted physical attacks. We could imagine, for example, academic anti-abortion activists organizing on campus for a bomb attack on a nearby clinic or to attack a pro-choice speaker.  Or the opposite, with pro-abortion activists among students, faculty, and staff mobilizing at their institution to go after a pro-life march or a fake clinic. Recruiting, planning, demonstrating, practicing – colleges and university may see such occur.

All of these possibilities would take place in an academic world already reeling from the past two+ years of a pandemic and political corrosion. So many students, faculty, and staff who are now responding to the Dobbs decision are already drained, exhausted, anxious, or traumatized by recent history. Many are not ok, as the saying goes, and now they face another historical quake.  How much more suffering and burnout will result?  To what extent will the end of Roe make it even harder for academics to do their work?

There are other dimensions to this development.  Other possibilities lie ahead. I’ll stop here, because this is long enough, and I have a lot of work to do. There are people to support.  In the meantime, please let us know what you think this Supreme Court decision will mean for higher education in the comments.  Do any of the preceding potentials resonate? What else should we bear in mind?

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6 Responses to The end of Roe and what it might mean for American higher education

  1. goplastic1 says:

    Indirect possible impact. The current trend of states losing population (New York) and gaining (Florida) will probably not be enough to change overall state support/opposition of abortion. What if this trend changes and people move to/from states primarily due to abortion laws? Could individual purple states become more or less red/blue?
    -State support and funding of higher education, and restrictions from legislation?
    -Replacement of college/university president due to position/policies related to abortion?

  2. Vanessa Vaile says:

    As someone old enough to remember life with a working uterus before Roe, I could say a lot, not as higher ed focused though. This tweet pretty much covers my idea of a solution.

    https://twitter.com/johnis44/status/1540369667344195586

  3. Linda says:

    Tennessee can’t even wait for 30 days. They are trying to put it into effect immediately. The law makes it a Class C felony for a doctor to perform an abortion in any of those situations, meaning a physician convicted under the law faces three to 15 years in prison.

    Tennessee’s other law, which would go into effect in 30 days, was passed as the “Human Life Protection Act” in 2019. It provides no exceptions for victims of rape, assault or incest, and only allows abortion when necessary to prevent death or “substantial and irreversible impairment of major bodily function.”

    And to remind anyone, Tennessee ranked 44th based on cost, access and outcomes. Another study has it ranked 40th overall based on access, quality and public health. It also ranks down around that number for education. Republicon’s want to rule poor, sick, and uneducated people.

  4. Mark says:

    “Will we see women’s numbers drop to male levels? (Women outnumber men in higher ed classes by about 3:2 now.)”

    And how much of an overall decline in degrees will this bring? I think the ratio will likely change, but first let’s see if it reaches 5:4.

  5. Leigh Marthe says:

    Thank you for sharing all of these perspectives for us to consider. I suspect this is not the end of the erosion of civil rights for Americans. The more we can reflect, prepare, and continue the discussions we need to have to support each other and those of us who don’t have a voice or the freedom to live our lives the way we choose, the better off all of us can hope to be. May our education and wisdom of our minds be matched by abundant love and care for each other.

  6. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, the US continues relentlessly toward fascism–with limited resistance. The question now is which form of fascism wins: neoliberal technofascism or Trumpian Christo-fascism?

    https://www.highereducationinquirer.org/2022/02/one-fascism-or-two-reemergence-of.html

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