Roe v. Wade leak sparks new wave of student activism

·8 min read

Washington University in St. Louis sophomores Olivia Danner and Sarah Rosen quickly moved to action when they first learned on May 2 that the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision establishing a woman's constitutional right to an abortion would likely be overturned.

Within four days, the two executive board members of the campus’s Planned Parenthood Generation Action chapter, the youth arm of the pro-abortion-rights organization, had organized a schoolwide rally at which more than 300 students participated. By the end of that weekend, they had secured signatures from more than 500 faculty members and students demanding that their private university, with just over 15,000 students, take a stand on reproductive justice.

“A lot of students are feeling very helpless, and so having the opportunity to engage with us and come to that rally, there's been a huge revival of energy on repro-justice and repro-action,” Rosen, the group’s secretary, told Yahoo News.

Harvard University freshmen chant
Harvard University freshmen chant "Not your body, not your choice" while rallying at the school on May 4. They were met by counterprotesters who argued that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Rosen argued that the school's taking a stand on abortion rights would be a signal to women on campus and elsewhere around the state of Missouri “that if Roe is overturned, we're gonna protect you regardless.” Thus far, the school has not responded, the activists said.

But there’s not much the school can do. Missouri already has a “trigger” law with a near-complete ban on abortion — with no exemptions for victims of rape or incest — to go into effect should Roe be overturned. Danner and Rosen fear the removal of Roe would only further push women’s reproductive rights in the state to the margins.

“Abortion hasn't been accessible in Missouri even before this has happened,” Danner said, adding that there is just one clinic in the state that hasn’t performed an abortion in over a year. “I think that students are just very fearful and uncertain.”

The feeling of uncertainty has spread on college campuses across the country, in the midst of graduation season, as large rallies of abortion rights advocates and opponents have squared off, pushing fellow students to decide where they stand.

Harvard University students chant while rallying on May 4 in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University students chant while rallying on May 4 in Cambridge, Mass. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Large demonstrations held by pro-abortion-rights students have taken place at large schools like the University of California, San Diego, where hundreds marched earlier this month holding signs saying “My Body, My Choice,” to various schools across Virginia and smaller schools like Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., where dozens came out to raise their voices.

Simultaneously, abortion opponents have let their voices be heard at schools like Harvard University and New York University, where seemingly smaller crowds held signs that read “Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman.”

The rallies were all sparked by a Politico report earlier this month revealing that, in February, a majority of five Supreme Court justices had signed onto a draft opinion overturning Roe. The high court confirmed the authenticity of the document, but it could still change by the time the opinion is released, likely in late June.

At the University of North Florida, a large public research school in Jacksonville, the initial student reaction was relatively muted, according to Eleanor Ascheman, a junior at the school and a volunteer with Students for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy organization. But in the weeks since, she says, tensions have grown.

“When tabling [for Students for Life], people used to just walk by and not interact at all. Now we get people yelling at us and flipping us off more,” Ascheman told Yahoo News. “We’ve also had increasing problems with abortion supporters intentionally washing away and defacing our chalk messages which were in our free speech zones and approved by the school. We know that this is a contentious subject, but the UNF student body generally has been trying to remove the pro-life voice rather than counter it with their own opinions.”

Counterprotesters at Harvard hold a sign that reads Harvard Right To Life as they are met by students who rallied on May 4, 2022.
Counterprotesters at Harvard hold a sign as they are met by students rallying for abortion rights. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

With the reversal of Roe, Ascheman is optimistic that the decision will make campuses like hers more accommodating to young mothers. The Supreme Court ruling would “empower” such students, she predicted.

“[Women] shouldn’t have to be afraid of being student mothers,” she said.

But many college students are fearful of what a society without Roe would look like, mainly because it affects so many women. A 2017 study by the American Public Health Association, based on data from 2014, found that roughly one in four women in the U.S. would be expected to get an abortion by the time they reach 45. And data shows that younger women are the group most likely to have abortions. In 2014, more than half of all abortion patients in the U.S. were women in their 20s, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights research organization that also supplied some of the data for the American Public Health Association study. Women ages 20 to 24 made up the largest of any age group, with 34% of all abortions that year — and there’s no evidence that this will slow down.

These numbers may substantially change if Roe is overturned, especially for poorer women in more conservative states who lack the resources to travel to states (or countries) with widespread abortion availability. If Roe is fully dismantled, 58% of U.S. women of reproductive age (from 12 to 51 years old) will live in the 26 states that are considered “hostile” to abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

An abortion-rights demonstrator has the words
An abortion-rights demonstrator has the words "My Body My Choice" written on her front as she gathers near the Washington Monument during a nationwide rally in support of abortion rights. (Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Anti-abortion activists argue that Roe’s reversal would entrust legislative majorities in individual states to decide their own laws on the issue.

“If you like limits on abortion, you don’t like Roe,” said Kristi Hamrick, a strategist and spokesperson for Students for Life, which claims to have groups on 1,200 college campuses in all 50 states. “Roe has taken choice from people. It took their voice away, and we find that millennials and Gen Z do want a voice and a vote on abortion.”

Although the abortion rights debate has escalated after the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, heated discussions on the issue are nothing new.

Anti-abortion demonstrators hold signs as they stage a counterprotest on the steps of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
Anti-abortion demonstrators hold signs as they stage a counterprotest on the steps of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Through most of the 1800s, abortion in some form went from widely legal in the U.S. to largely criminalized by 1920 — up until the passing of Roe in 1973. Conservatives have organized for decades since the landmark ruling to reverse it.

“College campuses have always been at the epicenter of some form of reproductive rights organizing,” Mary Ziegler, an abortion expert and law professor at Florida State University, told Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. “Younger people have helped set the terms of the debate. That makes sense because they are the people most likely to be affected. Because they are of reproductive age — and will be for a long time.”

Recent polling shows that most college students support legal abortion: Some 78% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while just 22% said abortion should be illegal, according to a 2019 poll from College Pulse, a student polling platform.

Many colleges, though, are liberal outposts in much more conservative states. Could the upcoming Supreme Court ruling affect where some young people go to school? Students gave mixed answers.

“If I was someone thinking about coming to WashU, it would definitely impact my decision,” Rosen said.

Students walk through campus at Washington University in St. Louis.
Students walk through campus at Washington University in St. Louis. (Nick Schnelle/Washington Post via Getty Images)

But Claire Hoffman, the Generation Action chapter’s president and a St. Louis native, believes that staying in a community with opposing ideology can be the best way to make a difference.

“I've always been completely at odds with the political climate in Missouri,” Hoffman told Yahoo News. “And this impacted my decision differently because I see it kind of as an incentive to stay in Missouri because we're the only way that anything will ever change. Missouri is so red and so anti-choice and so against everything that young progressives stand for that it's really alienating and it can be very hard to work in. … So we need as many people here as we can.”

While it wouldn’t be a huge factor in her college decision, Ascheman, the UNF student, said she “would prefer to be in a state that has more restrictions on abortions.”


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images