Katherine A. Henry Memorial Fund Lecture Focuses on Abortion Bans and Women’s Health

Mary Cronin ‘22, News Editor 

Jocelyn Buggy ‘22, Chief Web Editor 

On Tuesday, March 22, students and faculty attended a panel titled Abortion Bans and Women’s Health: Legal, Ethical, and Medical Perspectives. The event was co-sponsored by the Africana Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies, Political Science, and Health Profession Advising Departments as part of the Katherine A. Henry ’86 Memorial Lecture Series. Featured on the panel were Michelle Oberman, Katharine and George Alexander Professor of Law at Santa Clara University, Dr. A. Lowell, D.O., MPH, and Emily Reimer-Barry, Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at University of San Diego. 

Professor Vickie Langohr, Director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program at the College of the Holy Cross, began the event by introducing each panel speaker and sharing with the audience about what prompted the focus of this year’s lecture. “We face a very rapidly changing legal landscape on abortion,” she said, referencing the pending U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which disputes a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks. Langohr stated that the pressing nature of threats to legal abortion, along with the question of abortion as one not only of women’s health but also of race and class, ultimately inspired the event.  

Following an introduction from Professor Langohr, Professor Michelle Oberman began the panel discussion by sharing that given the rapidly shifting legal landscape, she feels an urgent calling to offer a new way of understanding abortion law to a diverse audience. Oberman stated that her goal was to help the audience see the clear ways in which abortion’s legal status is and is not related to the actual practice of abortion. She expressed that, as a lawyer, she is particularly interested in the gap between abortion law “on the books” and how the law operates “on the ground.” Her research interest was piqued after a trip to Chile, a nation with one of the strictest sets of abortion laws in the world, to explore the question: What happens in healthcare settings when abortion is illegal? She recounted to the audience interviewing Chilean healthcare providers who pulled up their phones and showed her an entire online abortion medication market. She recalled these interactions “shattering” her paradigm and encouraged others to learn about the realities of this “gap” in law versus praxis. 

After outlining different eras of abortion law in the United States since Roe v. Wade, Professor Oberman discussed what she termed the “short term” and “long term” strategies of abortion law escalation since 2002: restricting legal access through bans and changing the judiciary through efforts such as the National Right to Life Committee report cards. With the looming Dobbs v. Jackson decision, however, Professor Oberman again implored the audience: “The more important questions for us to grapple with are to consider what happens on the ground.” She analogized the future of abortion law and the current landsape of cannabis law, predicting a “patchwork quilt” of legislation in which abortion is legal in some states and criminalized in others. As a result, Professor Oberman argued, “Online abortion access is likely the future face of abortion access.” She told attendees that she sees online reproductive health providers such as HeyJane and Choix rising in popularity as abortion bans increase. In response to this reality, Oberman concluded by encouraging people to consider the question: What do we owe to those seeking abortion because they cannot afford a(nother) child? 

Dr. A. Lowell, D.O., MPH followed Professor Oberman’s presentation, offering a medical perspective on abortion access and women’s health. As a board member of the Reproductive Health Access Project, Dr. Lowell remarked that she has seen firsthand the surprising ways in which politics, law, and medicine are intertwined. She offered a clinician’s perspective and reflections on her personal experience with abortion as well as those of her patients. As she began her presentation, Dr. Lowell told the audience, “I hope to demonstrate that abortion care is essential healthcare.” She emphasized that she considers abortion and reproductive health care central to her practice, rather than regarding them as “fringe care.” Despite this approach, Dr. Lowell explained that laws targeting abortion providers, such as those regulating the width of corridors in abortion clinics, ultimately limit women’s access to such healthcare. She recalled her past experience working at a federally qualified health center and, under the Hyde Amendment, being unable to counsel on abortion services despite her patients’ requests. “You feel like you have to almost work against patients,” Dr. Lowell said, “by not being able to offer them the full spectrum of their safe options.”

Perhaps the most striking moment of Dr. Lowell’s presentation was when she recounted her experience entering medical school. She told the audience that throughout her medical education, she could not recall any specific lectures on the topic of abortion. Given that 1 in 4 women in the United States seek an abortion, Dr. Lowell was struck that physicians received little formal training in their standard curriculum. She remains motivated by this reality, working regular shifts at Planned Parenthood and teaching educational workshops to demonstrate procedural abortion in addition to her primary care practice. “I’m motivated by the fact that a lot of physicians aren’t getting the training, or are burdened by the controversial perception,” Dr. Lowell said. She told attendees that she engages in this work to destigmatize the abortion procedure itself, emphasizing that over 90 percent of abortions are early trimester, and most in her practice are medication abortions. At the close of her presentation, Dr. Lowell urged her audience to consider the rising mergers of hospitals and Catholic institutions, particularly in the American South. She remarked that as a practicing Catholic herself, she struggles to reconcile the reality that, at faith-based institutions, patients may not receive comprehensive access to patient-centered reproductive healthcare such as abortion services. 

From a theological perspective, Professor Emily Reimer-Barry offered a Feminist Catholic Analysis of abortion. She stated that her goal is to reduce the number of abortions while advocating for women’s moral agency. She outlined church documents and teachings typically used to condemn abortion, while maintaining a personal opposition to abortion bans due to the way they undercut women’s moral agency. Dr. Reimer-Barry discussed the numerous sacrifices women make when coerced into pregnancy and motherhood, such as their health, education, dreams, and sometimes even their life. She used the example of St. Gianna, a pregnant woman diagnosed with cancer who chose not to get treatment until after she gave birth, and died shortly after due to her cancer. Dr. Reimer-Barry highlighted the difference between choosing to sacrifice your life, as Gianna did, and being forced to sacrifice your life, which increasing abortion bans may position women to do. 

She went on to discuss goals for reproductive justice feminism, including eliminating sexual violence, fostering sexual relationships of mutual flourishing, expanding access to accurate information about sexuality, preventing unwanted pregnancies and teen pregnancies, reducing the number of abortions, and fiercely advocating for women’s human rights. Because abortion is not the only problem a pregnant woman faces, Dr. Reimer-Barry emphasized the need for Catholics to understand what pregnant women go through in order to mercifully respond. She also encouraged Catholics to acknowledge the intersecting issues that influence a woman’s decision to have a baby, such as healthcare, housing, violence, age, and socioeconomic status. She emphasized how these supports need to come before women’s sacrifices. She then concluded with the Gospel story about Jesus and the Bleeding Woman (Mark 5:25-34), stating that Christian discipleship means following in the footsteps of Jesus, who expressed solidarity with the bleeding woman and let her tell her whole truth. 

The panelists then accepted questions from the audience. One audience member pointed out how when talking about abortion, the attention seems to be heavily on women. They asked if there is a scope to focus on men and the responsibility and accountability men have when it comes to abortion. Dr. Oberman clarified that there are legal ways to ensure men are involved, and acknowledged that men who get women pregnant often are not talked about, but still carry abortion stories. Dr. Reimer-Barry discussed the tension of male control over the decision of women when discussing male responsibility. Dr. Lowell emphasized that reproductive health is not just women’s health, and that in her own practice she makes it a point to ask men about consent, contraception, and to teach about the option of a vasectomy. Another audience member asked the panelists for a single policy that they thought would provide more support to women. Dr. Reimer-Barry said that expansion of temporary assistance to needy families would be an especially effective policy, while Dr. Oberman referenced that contraception is the best way to prevent abortion. Dr. Lowell emphasized universal healthcare for all, ensuring timely, patient-centered, evidence-based care that would prevent people from getting into these circumstances. 

When asked what she hoped students and faculty would take away from the event, Professor Langohr told “The Spire,” “Each panelist documented the fact that if we want to dramatically reduce abortions, we would need a society very different from the one we currently have in the U.S.: one with much better access to health care, sex education, and contraception, so that women who don’t want to become pregnant avoid unwanted pregnancy; one with affordable child care and social safety net programs, so that poor women who want to continue their pregnancies can afford to do so; and one actively seeking to dismantle racial injustice, as women of color are disproportionately represented among those seeking abortions. Also, as Professor Oberman’s research in countries with abortion bans demonstrates, criminalizing abortion does not end abortion; countries with abortion bans continue to have high abortion rates.

Professor Langohr also spoke about why she feels it was important to host this event at Holy Cross given the current political climate. She said: “Abortion access may be dramatically limited in many states by the end of this year. It is often assumed that because the Catholic Church is actively working to end legal abortion that discussing challenging moral questions posed by this approach is taboo at Holy Cross. However, in our position as a Jesuit institution of higher learning we are also called upon to work for racial and gender equality and social justice. In the context of abortion, this means addressing the fact that if women can be forced by the state to carry pregnancies to term against their will they are not full and equal citizens, and the fact that poor women and women of color are both more likely to seek abortion than other women, and more likely to be forced to carry their pregnancies to term than women with more resources, who will continue to find access to abortion even if it is criminalized in their state.” She also expressed, “I was grateful to the members of Students for Life who attended the talk, and hope that conversations among members of our community with opposing perspectives on this issue can discuss it further in fall 2022 and beyond.”

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