Panel of Notre Dame professors defend “abortion rights”
Gender Studies Department and Irish 4 Reproductive Health fear a reversal of Roe
The Notre Dame Gender Studies Department, the St. Mary’s College Gender Studies Department, and the nonprofit organization Irish 4 Reproductive Health hosted the event “Reversing Roe” on January 22. Following the showing of the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe, four Notre Dame professors discussed the film and the social and political phenomena surrounding abortion.
Irish 4 Reproductive Health advocates for “reproductive justice” and “works to expand access to reproductive health resources and information at the University of Notre Dame.” Last spring, the group held condom distributions on campus and began distributing condoms via a Snapchat service in which students can request that they be delivered to their dorms on weekend nights. The University administration has been informed of Irish 4 Reproductive Health’s on-campus condom distributions, but has taken no disciplinary action against them.
The documentary shown at the event traces the historical events leading up to the Roe v. Wade decision and the events that have followed in its wake. The film purports to take a neutral viewpoint to explain the politicization of abortion, but some pro-life speakers and organizers, including Live Action, have spoken out against the film for having a pro-choice bias.
The panel of Notre Dame professors—Professor of Gender Studies Pam Butler, Professor of History Karen Graubart, Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science Dianne Pinderhughes, and Professor of Political Science Christina Wolbrecht—provided commentary following the documentary.
Pinderhughes began by stating her view on the underlying motives of the pro-life movement, saying, “[Abortion] is an issue that allows for an effort to control the place of women. I’m sure you figured that out, or you wouldn’t be at this event. But also how people will reproduce, what the population will be, what it will be like. Those who push so aggressively for reproduction, continued reproduction without any controls, are those who are also more likely to be in support of making sure the country stays predominantly, overwhelmingly white.”
Butler agreed with Pinderhughes, insinuating that pro-life activism has emerged from white supremacy: “[Abortion] got politicized in a moment of a white supremacist strategy of the right wing of the Republican party to mobilize a very specific set of evangelical Christians in the United States as a base.”
Matt Connell, Vice President of Communications for Notre Dame Right to Life, told the Rover, “Professor Pinderhughes’ suggestion that the pro-life movement is motivated by an attempt to keep America predominantly white was puzzling, to put it mildly, given the reality that abortion disproportionately takes the lives of unborn children in minority communities in America, not to mention the deeply eugenic history of the abortion rights movement.”
Butler identified herself to be engaged in the pro-choice movement, saying, “I’m going to with some trepidation identify myself as a longtime reproductive rights activist and organizer, so not only do I research and teach about reproductive politics, but I also have been involved in reproductive rights activism since the 1990s. I think I volunteered at my first clinic my senior year of high school.”
Butler explained where she believes the pro-choice movement falls short and how she believes it can improve. She said, “The white-dominated feminist movement concerned with reproductive rights focuses almost exclusively on the right to an abortion…. It seems like we’re capitulating to the framing of the issue that was defined by the 1980’s evangelical white supremacists.”
Butler proposed that the pro-choice movement should instead move towards supporting abortion within the context of reproductive choices, maintaining, “Black and indigenous feminist activists have been telling us for decades that when you separate out abortion, and you separate out contraception, the right to not have a child, from a broader fabric of reproductive politics and freedoms, you’re creating reproduction as a white woman’s issue.” Explaining that pregnancy, parenting, and adoption should be brought into the conversation as well, she said, “I worry about what it means to see the future of reproductive politics solely through abortion and protecting Roe as our last best hope of freedom.”
Graubart voiced her concern over the pro-life movement’s success in limiting abortion, saying, “The last couple decades have not only been an attack on abortion rights, and access to abortion, but also a neoliberal strategy to criminalize poverty and to use race to criminalize poverty as well.”
Professor Graubart shared her experience of using in vitro fertilization. She said, “15 years ago, I decided that my career was finally on track. I was a queer single woman with a great job at an Ivy League institution about to get tenure, and I decided that I needed to have a baby… I went to a sperm bank, which is like the center of eugenics, right, that’s what sperm banks are….I was able to get myself pregnant, have a baby, and then create a life for myself using that.”
Graubart used this experience to raise concerns that poor women do not have the same privilege as her to access reproductive services. She explained that if Roe were reversed, “white women, middle class women, upper-class women” could get on an airplane and fly to where abortion was legal. “Those of us who have any access to funds are going to be able to have abortions forever. And it’s basically just going to be poor women and predominantly women of color who already get inadequate health care, who are treated poorly by doctors, who are never going to be able to go in and argue for their right to this case.”
Professor Wolbrecht discussed her opinion on the discourse surrounding abortion at Notre Dame, saying, “As soon as I came here [Notre Dame], I heard, ‘Oh [abortion]’s an issue that people take so seriously because it’s all about life and death.’ There’s no political issue that’s not about life and death. Immigration, social welfare, economic programs: people live and die on the basis of those decisions.”
Wolbrecht said, “If you frame [abortion] as a public health issue, this is a procedure like any other one that you have access to, then if the government pays for other forms of insurance, then it should pay for this one. We just had that fight over contraception….There is such disagreement in experience and belief about when life begins that we do have to fall back on this and say okay we have to let people make their own decision.”
Noelle Johnson, Director of Spirituality for Notre Dame Right to Life, challenged the panelists, asking them why they wouldn’t extend a concern for equality and justice to the unborn.
Graubart responded to Johnson, saying, “Well, I think one part of it is: when do you define something as a child? I think having borne a child, I can tell you that I don’t think that I had a child [in my womb]. I mean I had a potential child inside me for a number of months, which then developed into a child. I don’t believe in the soul, so that’s not an interesting argument to me, so I think that because science isn’t going to tell us when that clump of cells goes to being a child, that that should then be between you and your doctor to make that decision rather than the government.”
Connell told the Rover, “I was genuinely shocked to hear one of the panelists [Graubart] describe the unborn child as a ‘clump of cells.’ I thought the abortion debate had moved beyond using such unscientific terms to describe the developing human in the womb, especially at Notre Dame.”
Connell stated, “I support honest engagement of a wide range of ideas on campus. That said, ‘Reversing Roe’ was less an exploration of any meaningful ideas and more a laughable attempt to paint the pro-life movement as a patriarchal group of men trying to control women’s lives. A cursory look at the actual pro-life movement and its most prominent leaders easily refutes this effort.”
According to the University of Notre Dame’s Academic Freedom and Associated Responsibilities policy in the Faculty Handbook, “Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are safeguarded by the University.” The handbook also outlines an obligation to have “in the course of one’s utterances, work, and other conduct, protection of the basic mission of the University.” The “Reversing Roe” panel did not feature any pro-life commentators or respondents.
Two days following their “Reversing Roe” event, Irish 4 Reproductive Health attended a “Shout Your Abortion” event with Pro-Choice South Bend. This event was a public forum in which women told stories of abortions they had procured with the goal of encouraging pro-choice policies and viewpoints.
Irish 4 Reproductive Health plans to hold another event at Notre Dame surrounding abortion on March 5: a lecture by Professor of Medical Education and Bioethics & Medical Humanities at Northwestern University Katherine Watson. She is currently serving terms on the Board of the National Abortion Federation and on the National Medical Council of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Ellie Gardey is a sophomore studying political science and philosophy. She dreams of northern Michigan where she can canoe through wild rivers and hike in uncharted woods. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.