Around 75 students and community members gathered at the Rotunda steps Wednesday at noon for an educational teach-in event following a leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court which would overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark case that legalized one’s right to abortion nationwide.
The event was organized by second-year students Carissa Kochan, president of University Democrats and Violette Cadet, Student Council representative. Speakers from Planned Parenthood Generation Action at U.Va. and Culture of Respect Educators, as well as Charlottesville Sexual Assault Resource Agency and the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund addressed the crowd. Law Prof. Anne Coughlin, Delegate Sally Hudson and Mary Faith Marshall, director of the Center for Health Humanities and Ethics, also spoke at the event.
“I wanted to provide a safe outlet for students to learn from professionals in the community about what the draft opinion entailed, what it means for abortion access in Virginia and what resources will continue to be available for students if Roe is overturned,” Kochan said.
The Supreme Court’s decision is not final. The leaked opinion is a draft, and there is a possibility that justices could change their minds before the final decision is handed down in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — a case in Mississippi that questions the constitutionality of Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act, which bans all abortions after 15 weeks.
Cadet kicked off the event by recognizing that the fallout from the leak has left many overwhelmed, scared and reminded of the fragility of government protections.
“It’s really important to recognize that we’re all going through a moment of collective trauma,” Cadet said. “If people feel rage, that’s totally okay, and [we need] to validate that.”
Kaitlyn Baker, vice president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action at U.Va and third-year College student, emphasized how unprecedented the leak was and how “dangerous” the result would be should the 5-4 majority signaled in the draft opinion hold firm until a final decision in June or July.
“This is an unprecedented leak from the Court that would overturn nearly 50 years of precedent and would explicitly end federal Constitutional protections for abortion,” Baker said “This outcome is as dangerous as it is unprecedented and will open the floodgates for states to ban abortion.”
The Supreme Court occasionally overturns precedent — for example, in the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation or Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated laws criminalizing sexual conduct between two people of the same sex. Coughlin, though, said she finds it unusual that the Court would overturn a previous decision to constrain rather than expand individual rights.
“What’s unprecedented about the Dobbs decision … is that it is certainly one of the first times if not the first time the [Supreme Court] is overruling precedent to take away a constitutional right,” Coughlin said “This is genuinely an important watershed moment not just for abortion rights, but for the history Supreme Court as a whole.”
The right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade falls under the right to privacy and liberty protections in the 5th, 9th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, from a legal concept called substantive due process rights.
Coughlin said the leaked opinions “is at pains” to say the ruling wouldn’t touch the issues that followed out of the substantive due process tradition — such as the right to same-sex marriage and the right to marry interracially. However, Coughlin expressed doubt that the Court will hold to its word.
“When Roe falls, what happens to those other rights?” Coughlin asked.
Hudson emphasized that few Supreme Court decisions have been “thunderous” for gender equality, as Roe v. Wade allowed individuals to choose when and how to get pregnant at a critical time in their lives when many are making decisions about career opportunities and education. For Hudson, at the heart of the issue is the maintenance of a gendered society.
“Please know that’s why people want to take this away from you,” Hudson said. “It is not about family values, it is not about religious faith, it’s about how scary you are when you have the power to occupy space alongside people who are so used to having it themselves.”
Hudson drew attention to the fact that support for abortion access is more popular than attendees may have thought. According to Hudson, in the late 1960s right before Roe v. Wade was handed down, support for abortion rights was bipartisan. The wrest to take abortion rights away, said Hudson, reflects a long-term plan to make abortion illegal despite public support for expanded access.
“It has been part of a calculated plan over the course of 50 years to hijack the minority rule embedded in our Constitution — the electoral college, the Senate — those features have been used to wage a 50 year battle on reproductive rights,” Hudson said. “But it has nothing to do with abortion rights not being broadly unpopular among the electorate.”
Rennee Branson, executive director of the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, emphasized the potential ramifications of the decision. Branson said that many survivors of assault, incest and intimate partner violence don’t realize they are pregnant until they’re well into a pregnancy due to bodily trauma responses.
“Their realization of a rape-reated pregnancy might not occur to them until well after a sixth week or twelfth week of pregnancy,” Brandon said. “We fight for all cases across the board — regardless of rape or incest or intimate partner violence — to say that it is our autonomy that we protect.”
Hudson told attendees that abortion is legal in Virginia state law, and that no matter what the Supreme Court does abortion will remain legal in Virginia until a law is passed to outlaw it. However, the necessary Democratic majority in one branch of Virginia’s legislature — currently Democrats have a majority in the Senate — is slim, and therefore proponents of abortion need to remain engaged in state politics.
“You need to know from here on out when the Supreme Court is not coming to your rescue, abortion is on the ballot every single time you vote in a state election in Virginia,” Hudson said.
Kobby Hoffman, founder and former director of the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund, told attendees to never underestimate the power of small-scale collective organizing, and that if they care about an issue enough, they should act on it.
“It is so important that you continually learn throughout your life, that you continually pay attention, and that you accept full responsibility of our government,” Hoffman said. “Never underestimate yourself, never underestimate the difference one person can make. I care, I act.”