Two months ago, as reports surfaced about the potential for a reversal of Roe v Wade, leaders at the University of Michigan began taking proactive measures to deal with potential fallout if the Supreme Court acted. After getting approval, they formed a campus task force, not unlike the many formed for COVID-19 but one devoted specifically to Roe. So, when justices made the decision to strike down Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last Friday, they were ready.
That grassroots effort, spearheaded by leaders with ties to Michigan Medicine and the Women’s and Gender Studies department, now includes around 40 members who are offering both triage in this transformational moment and preparing for a deluge of responses, care requests and debate that will come in the fall. It is a powerful example of an institution taking a team approach to get out ahead of a controversial issue.
“We have high-quality staff, people who are really committed and a university president who was willing to listen,” says Anna Kirkland, professor of women and gender studies at Michigan. “It’s a cadre of smart women who’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”
President Mary Sue Coleman has been one of the few presidents nationwide to go public with comments on the Roe decision, denouncing the call by justices to strip away federal protections on abortion rights. “Mary Sue Coleman’s vocal support has been really, really important,” Kirkland says. “The task force had her endorsement. People very high up are invested in figuring this out. That’s been very clear and the success to anything. You have to have investment and support from the top.”
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That is especially relevant in these moments, or perhaps in new crises that might emerge around issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, as Justice Clarence Thomas alluded to in his opinion. The task force, like the rest of the nation and state officials, is wading through a sea of questions and uncertainty around Roe. Although abortion is still legal in Michigan, it is a purple state, and there is a “1931 zombie law” that could resurface if its injunction is lifted. Even if it remains intact, Michigan could become a surge state, where women from Indiana or Ohio might come to have procedures done, further compromising its own healthcare system. In states that do impose bans, it may have a domino effect on higher education in terms of recruitment, retention and revenue.
“There are going to be fewer women that are going to end up getting college degrees,” says Katherine Michelmore, associate professor of public policy at Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “More women are going to be deterred from higher education because they’re going to have unplanned pregnancies and be forced to carry them to term. It has cascading effects: worse job prospects in the future, reduced economic outcomes and more likely dependence on social safety net programs. I can imagine a lot of women making decisions about where to go to college based on what the state abortion access is like.”
How this force is working
The task force, co-chaired by Dr. Dee Fenner and Dr. Lisa Harris at Michigan Medicine, was established to find solutions to complicated issues surrounding Roe and how the court’s decision affects campus. Their brainstorming meetings over Zoom have led to hundreds of questions being asked (many of which have been sent to its General Counsel Office), including:
- What if we have more pregnant students?
- What if you’ve been sexually assaulted and you need to go through our Title IX process?
- What are we going to say to people in Michigan Medicine who call?
They’ve also forged tangible solutions, such as performing needs assessments with students and planning a series of Q&A-driven sessions for its community in July. In addition to Michigan Medicine and Women’s and Gender Studies, the task force includes members of the Counseling Center, student life organizations and student legal services. It is “feminist leaders” that largely have driven the conversation. They understand the potential implications of the decision, even at this elite university, whose students may not be as impacted as those who attend community colleges but still might face challenges if the political lean in Michigan changes.
“We don’t actually know how many of our students struggle with abortion access vs. how many of them are going to really see this as a turning point, a political moment in their lives,” Kirkland says. “They are a lot more advantaged in many ways than the profile of people that we know seek abortions in this country. But if you’re a banned state, how do we provide education, health insurance and security and everything for students, staff and faculty.”
Michelmore says in states with trigger laws, or even if the climate shifted in Michigan, “this is going to make it harder for women to access the care they need. Doctors are going to be warier of helping women who are seeking to end a pregnancy. That might lead some women to have to stop taking a break from school or drop out. The University of Michigan, by and large, a school with lots of economic means, a fair number of them would probably try to access that kind of care in states like Illinois or New York, where abortion is more protected. It’s safe to say there are going to be pervasive effects, but it’s hard to know right now.”
The future is simply unclear, say Kirkland and Michelmore. The Thomas statement and any further movement by the high court on other issues, like same-sex marriage, could further complicate care and assistance.
“It’s hard to know how quickly any of these things would be put on the table or how clear the immediate threat is,” she says. “If access to contraceptives is an issue, that’s certainly going to affect that college population. It’s only been three days that sales of abortion pills have gone through the roof [and become limited at some stores such as CVS]. I think you’ll probably see women who are able to go seek long-acting contraceptives like IUDs to protect themselves.”
For now, Kirkland says, the task force is focused strictly on the issue in front of them: Roe. She says, “the temperature has calmed down a little bit now that we realize we don’t have a situation of immediate illegality. But I’m thinking about all of it.”