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While the content of Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is not a surprise, it is devastating. Those of us in the California higher education community support reproductive rights, and at this critical juncture we must pause and reflect upon what this means for women and their right to educational access nationwide. As mothers and as educators, we understand what is at stake. These data are clear.
More than half of people who access abortion are in their 20s, which means many are likely to be pursuing higher education. In fact, studies show that one in seven people who had an abortion did so in order to continue their education; the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy institute focused on reproductive rights, puts this figure closer to 40 percent. The ruling therefore takes direct aim at our nation’s college students. Even more distressing is the realization that the impacts are felt most profoundly by our students of color and by individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Only modestly impacted by yesterday’s ruling, more privileged women will simply “go shopping with the girls” for the weekend in a blue state.
The writer Sheelah Kolhatkar recently summarized what is at stake by describing the effects of the legalization of abortion in the 1970s: “Women who were able to delay motherhood through legal access to abortion were much more likely to finish college, pursue higher degrees, spend longer in the labor force, and enter higher-paying occupations; they were much less likely to fall into poverty later in life.” Of course, the effects of this ruling in higher education will extend beyond students, for example by affecting admissions and enrollment patterns.
Nearly 60 percent of America’s college students are women, and without access to safe reproductive health care, their admission, enrollment and graduation becomes that much more precarious. All of this perniciously undermines the transformative power of education and information—the potential for transformation being at the heart of our work.
This comes at a time when parent students are already struggling with astounding levels of basic needs around food and housing insecurity, challenges the pandemic has only exacerbated. The compounding impacts are horrifying. Despite the hopeful stories, only 8 percent of single mothers who enroll in college manage to earn a degree within six years. Put another way, 92 percent of single-mother students do not graduate with a life-transforming, income-enhancing credential. Without access to safe and affordable access to abortion, career options are largely erased for our society’s most vulnerable citizens.
To be sure, the fall of Roe will have ripple effects in every sector of society. As a higher education community, we are uniquely qualified to address many of these effects head-on. Our work for equity and justice has now become more difficult, and we must mobilize with collective determination. This fight is not over.