On the Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Jennie Sweet-Cushman was trying to work. But she couldn’t think.
“I can’t work because I feel so threatened by this government,” said Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor of political science at Chatham University. The court’s reversal of the landmark ruling was expected, she said, but difficult to prepare for.
Four Pittsburgh academics told PublicSource that they felt “unsettled,” “devastated” and “scattered” in the wake of Roe’s overturning. They said the reversal, coming in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, may disparately limit access based on race and class and will likely make abortion a key issue in upcoming elections. They expressed concern that the decision could endanger other currently protected rights.
The reversal of Roe sends a message to people with uteruses that they’re not entitled to the same rights and privileges as those without, Sweet-Cushman said.
“We have a history of oppressing people and then expanding civil rights and liberties to have a broader base of people who share in the American ideal of equality,” she said. “This is a major retraction of that. Major.”
Laura Lovett, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, sees the court’s reversal of Roe creating circumstances — and disparities — for pregnant people that mirror those seen 50 years ago.
Before the Supreme Court passed Roe in 1973, some states allowed abortion under certain circumstances. Many pregnant people traveled particularly to New York, which had a more liberal law permitting abortions, to receive the procedure.
Today, more than a dozen states have “trigger bans” on the books that would ban or severely restrict abortion within a month, and at least eight did so on Friday. Similar to the pre-Roe U.S., pregnant people who lack resources and supports — due to childcare responsibilities, work obligations or abusive situations — will likely face greater challenges in seeking abortions, Lovett said.
“I worry about the continued impact, especially on women who cannot afford to go to places where it’s still safe and still legal, and the impact that the decision to have children without choice will make on their lives and on the lives of their families, their communities,” she said.
Abortion providers in Pennsylvania are now anticipating an influx of patients from other states, which advocates say could make access harder for residents.
The court’s decision will exacerbate the challenges marginalized people already face in accessing abortions, said Robin Brooks, an associate professor of Africana studies at Pitt. She also noted the risks that carrying a pregnancy to term may present for Black women, who die during childbirth at significantly higher rates than white women.
Along with the reversal’s larger, systemic impacts, Allie Reznik, an assistant professor of humanities at Chatham University, questioned what the decision could mean personally as not only a person with a uterus but also a person in a same-sex marriage.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called for the court to revisit other rulings, including those prohibiting state restrictions on same-sex marriage and contraception, in a separate opinion released Friday.
That was concerning for Lovett, too, given that younger people have known nothing but Roe and steadily expanding reproductive and civil rights.
“I think the whole generation, the way in which they’ve grown up imagining themselves is imperiled by this decision,” Lovett said.
The reversal of Roe will not impact abortion access immediately in Pennsylvania. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s term ends in 2023, however, and the governor’s race will likely play a pivotal role in shaping abortion rights in the state.
Pennsylvania could also be influential in determining whether a national ban on abortion comes to the president’s desk after 2024, Sweet-Cushman said, citing the Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz as particularly critical. Former Vice President Mike Pence has called for such a ban.
Helping others register to vote and participate in elections is likely the most important way people can respond to Friday’s decision, Sweet-Cushman said. Lovett said she’d like to see “mass mobilization” at the local, state and national level.
“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has handed us the tool for helping my students to understand how absolutely important it is to pay attention at every point to how we can protect what rights we have,” Lovett said.
Reznik was also thinking about their students on Friday. How could the decision impact them? How could they provide support?
On Reznik’s mind, too, was what taking action now looks like.
“There’s so much that needs to be done on a micro-level for me personally, and to contribute to that systemic change,” they said. “I’ve only lived in a world where Roe v. Wade was law, and so, it’s scary to think about.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.