Two Law student groups hosted a conversation on reproductive rights Friday in response to a Feb. 9 program surrounding abortion planned by the Federalist Society. The Federalist Society’s event — titled “Does Women’s Equality Require Abortion?” — featured legal scholar Erika Bachiochi. The event drew criticism from Law students for being misleading, as well as transphobic comments previously made by Bachiochi.
The Federalist Society is composed of conservative and libertarian Law students with the goal of furthering principles of individual liberty, the separation of governmental powers and the rule of law. According to its website, the organization does so through lectures, debates and panels on contemporary topics.
Federalist Society event draws criticism
Ahead of the event, If/When/How leadership released an open letter. Despite the event’s characterization as a discussion, If/When/How said that only one viewpoint or answer was included. If/When/How is a pro-choice organization composed of Law students seeking to expand reproductive rights.
The letter called on the Federalist Society to open the topic to different perspectives, highlighting the long-term support for abortion access by a majority of Americans and the increasing risk to reproductive healthcare with the growth of restrictive abortion laws by states.
“To answer the call of the Federalist’s Society’s event, yes, women’s equality does require abortion,” the letter read. “Considering that the event is framed as a dialogue, we implore the Federalist Society to include a wider range of views in this event.”
Ten additional Law student organizations and more than 190 students have signed on in support of the letter. Additional undersigning organizations include the American Constitution Society at U.Va. Law, International Refugee Assistance Project at U.Va. Law, Women of Color at U.Va. Law, National Lawyers Guild at U.Va. Law and Virginia Law Democrats.
The If/When/How letter highlights Bachiochi’s past views, citing a Youtube video during which Bachiochi says that “easy access to abortion has served to relieve men of any responsibility for engaging in sex with a woman.”
The letter also cites concerns about Bachiochi’s centering of cisgender and heterosexual relationships in debates on abortion as well as “blantant transphobia,” referencing comments written by Bachiochi in a 2016 article that characterized the legal recognition of transgender women as a threat to non-trans women.
“Bachiochi’s disdain for a woman’s autonomy over her own body is deeply troubling,” the letter read.
Bachiochi responded to the letter’s assertions in a tweet ahead of the event.
“U.Va. Law student orgs characterized my views as ‘fringe’ while linking to pieces in the NYT & Politico,” Bachiochi wrote. “Of particular offense — I regard abortion as a ‘cisgender women's issue.’ Gotta love when protesters do your PR for you.”
Despite the letter, the society’s Feb. 9 event began as planned with a presentation by Bachiochi, whose areas of legal specialization include equal protection, feminist legal theory, Catholic social teaching and sexual ethics. Her law review articles critique the legal bases for abortion rights and challenge the notion that abortion rights improve women’s equality.
Bachiochi’s presentation was based on her research and arguments presented in a previous article published for Quinnipiac Law Review. She began by detailing the legal and historical context of abortion rights in the U.S., with a particular focus on the Planned Parenthood v. Casey Supreme Court case, which followed Roe v. Wade and reinforced the Court’s decision that abortion was constitutionally legal.
In a 2020 opinion piece for The Atlantic, Bachiochi argued that the view of autonomy as central to citizenship propagates a male-centered ideal that places parenthood and attachment as symbols of dependence.
“Equality premised on the power to end life is not true equality at all,” Bachiochi wrote.
Bachiochi also challenged the principal reasoning cited by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — in particular that there was already reliance on accessible abortion and that abortion promoted equal economic and social access for women.
Chloe Fife, former president of LLA and third-year Law student, said that she doesn’t think the question of whether abortion is necesary should be up for debate.
“It is anticipated that the abortion rights will be will be greatly threatened by the Supreme Court this year,” Fife said. “We need to be having these conversations and we need to be challenging anybody who seeks to undermine access to abortion.”
Fife cited recent events as worrisome, such as the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi law banning all abortions after 15 weeks, including in cases of rape and incest, except for those that place the life of the pregnant woman at risk. The law explicitly violates Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the Court’s decision to hear the case has been interpreted as a potential threat to the legalization of abortion in the U.S.
The Federalist Society declined to comment on the event, adding that the group does not issue statements or comments.
Panel discussion Friday advocates for inclusive reproductive rights
Student leaders in If/When/How and the Lambda Law Alliance organized their own event to provide an alternative perspective on the topic of reproductive rights. The LLA is a group of Law students founded to offer support and advocacy efforts for those identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The event was moderated by Law Prof. Anne Coughlin. Panelists included Ting Ting Cheng, director of the Equal Rights Ammendment Project at Columbia Law School, Tannis Fuller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund and Chris Barcelos, assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Coughlin began by reinforcing her belief that the Federalist Society’s choice to only include one speaker in their conversation centered around women’s equality excluded the LGBTQ+ community from the dialogue.
“The objective is to resist the constraints that are imposed by a jurisprudential approach that has the effect of silencing and may be calculated to silence the voices of people of color of LGBTQ+ folks of persons who are transgender, non binary and gender non-conforming, along with the many other people who don't fall into the categories woman and man, envisioned by the Federalist society’s question,” Coughlin said.
Barcelos compared obstacles to abortion with limitations on gender-affirming surgeries for the transgender community.
“They're part of a system of control that limits the self autonomy of marginalized people to control their own reproduction, their own bodies, their own futures,” Barcelos said.
Cheng explained her work with the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would remove legal distinctions between men and women in areas such as divorce, employment and property ownership. Currently, 38 states have ratified the amendment, which Cheng said has a direct relationship to abortion rights.
“There's been this relationship where the ERA advocates could sort of say, ‘well, there's no relationship between the ERA and abortion and reproductive rights.’” Cheng said. “That just cannot be true because the ERA is about financial equality. I can’t think of anything to trigger financial equality more than bodily autonomy.”
Cheng emphasized the contributions of marginalized communities to both the push for the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive rights.
“There’s a lot to honor — the contributions of Black people and also gender non-conforming [people] that have brought us to where we are today,” Cheng said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article characterized interviewee Chloe Fife as a first-year Law student and current president of LLA. Fife is a third-year Law student and the former president of LLA. The article has been updated to reflect Fife's correct year and position.