After Dobbs, A Letter to the Sewanee Community

To the Sewanee community,

On Friday, June 24th, the Supreme Court issued an anticipated ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the constitutional right to abortion established nearly fifty years ago in Roe v. Wade (1973) and reaffirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). With that ruling, the Court removed constitutional protection for an established right for the first time in its history; it also raised the possibility that other established rights could be reconsidered, specifically the right to contraception (see Griswold v. Connecticut), the right to same-sex intimacy (see Lawrence v. Texas), and the right to same-sex marriage (see Obergefell v. Hodges). As it happens, the Dobbs decision was announced the day after the fiftieth anniversary of Title IX. To mark the occasion and the achievements of the civil rights law that opened educational opportunities to millions of people, the President of the United States said that Title IX “transformed our nation.” With the overturning of Roe, the Supreme Court has also transformed our nation and now the future is both uncertain and ominous for millions of women, queer, nonbinary, and trans folk. 

We, as members of Sewanee’s faculty, write to express our concern about the life-altering consequences that will surely follow in the wake of the Court’s decision. Millions of pregnant people will now find their access to abortion denied or severely restricted by state laws or court decisions. As it stands, twenty states will ban or restrict abortions immediately or in the near future, while in another ten the legal status of abortion is up for reconsideration. Here in Tennessee, one of thirteen states with “trigger laws,” an even more restrictive ban will go into effect on August 25, when all abortions are outlawed except to save the mother from death or serious physical injury. The new law is particularly egregious as it is based upon an affirmative defense approach to enforcement which means that physicians performing abortions to save the life of the pregnant person can be first charged with a Class C felony–which carries a prison sentence of three to fifteen years and fines up to $10,000–and then must justify and defend their actions in court. This places physicians in the untenable position of risking prosecution for providing life-saving care to their patients.

As of August 25, pregnant people requiring abortion care who reside in Tennessee will be forced to travel out of state. This is impractical or impossible for nearly half of all abortion patients who disproportionately include women living below the poverty line, especially women of color. The risks already faced by undocumented pregnant people will be compounded. Without access to safe and legal abortion, pregnant people will suffer the status of second-class citizens who are made more vulnerable to the coercive power of the state. Under state laws that criminalize abortion, pregnant people lose their bodily autonomy and can be forced to give birth against their will, effectively becoming enslaved to the state. Under more draconian laws, victims of incest or rape can be victimized once by their attackers, and again by the state that requires them to carry to term a pregnancy that was violently imposed upon them. Under the most extreme scenarios, the state may increase its surveillance of pregnant people, track and criminalize their interstate travel, charge their companions with aiding and abetting, incentivize bounty hunters, or charge people who have an abortion with murder, all as anti-choice militants armed with guns and lethal doses of moral superiority grow bolder. And under any legal regime that rejects privacy as a substantive due process right, the civil rights of trans and other queer folk are in jeopardy as well, as recent laws and executive orders in states like Texas and Florida already make clear. 

Without access to legal, reliable abortion, those who would have sought to terminate a pregnancy will also suffer the known long-term effects of unwanted births. In terms of physical and mental health, women denied abortions are more likely to experience complications during pregnancy, such as eclampsia, and gestational hypertension, anxiety, and low self-esteem after giving birth; state bans and restrictions may also increase the likelihood of intimate partner violence and the overall number of pregnancy-related deaths. Women without access to abortion are also more likely to raise their child alone, three times more likely to be unemployed, and four times more likely to live in poverty; for many women, especially women of color, these documented burdens perpetuate “cycles of disadvantage” in which opportunities to achieve financial stability by taking a better paying job or earning a college degree are effectively foreclosed. These predictable economic and social disadvantages will be compounded by the lack of guarantees of paid parental leave, universal health care, and subsidized child care. 

We, as teachers and scholars dedicated to the success of our students, are especially alarmed by what the Dobbs decision could mean for our ability to educate women, nonbinary, and trans men at our university. Women make up nearly sixty percent of American college students nationwide; at Sewanee, women have made up over fifty percent of the undergraduate student body for years. As research shows, more than half of the people accessing abortion are in their twenties. Crucially, up to forty percent of this demographic have an abortion in order to continue their education. Unplanned pregnancies brought to term meanwhile pose insurmountable obstacles to earning a degree for most: ninety-two percent of single mothers will not graduate in six years. To paraphrase a question posed by Janet Koven Levit in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, what will Sewanee look like when large numbers of our students live with the possibility that the state of Tennessee will force them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, against their will? 

What challenges our university will face in a post-Dobbs future can be gauged by the questions other academic institutions are already asking. Will Sewanee, a college in a state with very limited legal options for abortion, be at a disadvantage when admissions counselors attempt to recruit and admit students from across the nation and globe? Early inquiries suggest we might. Will living in a state with curtailed abortion access compound student mental health challenges, especially in the case of victims of sexual assault? Past research suggests that levels of stress and depression could indeed increase. Should the university add sexual-health education to student orientation or first year programs, including information about reproductive choices available on or near campus? Will the university need to make accommodations for pregnant students and new parents–more flexible class schedules, lactation rooms, and adequate child care, for example–and plans for students who drop out? How will the university inform and support current students–especially if there is a rise in campus activism across the country, as many predict? 

Just as pressing, but more nebulous, are the challenges faculty and staff will face as we work with students. How, for example, will we demonstrate respect for privacy while communicating support, especially if students are absent-minded in class due to a missed period or absent from class due to out-of-state travel for reproductive care? Most of us navigate this terrain with care and grace already, but should we double-check the wording of our attendance policies and Title IX statements? And speaking of faculty, we plan to hire for at least seventeen full-time positions in the coming years. Will it be harder now to recruit talented teachers to a rural area in a conservative, southern state? After all, nearly 60% of people who have an abortion already have at least one child. How will the university support future, and current, faculty and staff? Will parental/dependent care policies need revision and extension if people are now forced to carry an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy to term? Will the university offer to cover travel expenses for anyone who travels to access reproductive health care? If not, what if other schools do? What, too, will happen when it comes time to evaluate faculty for promotion if they have boycotted conferences or presentations in states with newly restrictive abortion laws? What will the university do if scholars in other states begin to boycott conferences and presentations at Sewanee? What kind of scholarship can get done and by whom amid these conditions? Again, what will Sewanee look like when large numbers of our faculty and staff live with the possibility that the state of Tennessee will force them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, against their will?  We raise these questions, but acknowledge that more remain to be asked. 

We conclude by welcoming the statements from Acting Vice Chancellor Nancy Berner and Associate Dean Noffsinger-Frazier and Presiding Bishop Curry. We, too, “recognize the uncertainty and fear many in our community are feeling” and we will “continue to support our students as they make their healthcare decisions.” We hope the University’s administration will take proactive steps to facilitate discussion of what the Dobbs decision and changes in state law may mean for students and employees.  We especially would like to know how the administration plans to navigate the new legal reality in light of its stated commitment to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion among historically marginalized and underrepresented groups in higher education. How, for example, are university leaders thinking about the university’s legal commitments to both Title IX and new state laws – which appear at best to operate at cross-purposes?  

We also stand in solidarity with the Wick, Spectrum, Pro-Choice Sewanee, and Lambda House and applaud their statements and hope other student groups speak out as well. We support the right of all students to express their views as part of a community founded on “full freedom of inquiry” and dedicated “to search for truth, seek justice, preserve liberty under law, and serve God and humanity.” We therefore support student debate, advocacy, and peaceful protest. We ourselves support the right to bodily autonomy for every individual and the right of individuals to make their own choices about reproductive care, including the choice to have an abortion. As teachers and scholars, we will continue to work with others to secure the liberty and rights of pregnant people in this nation.

Sincerely,

The Women’s and Gender Studies Program
Molly Brookfield, Assistant Professor of History, Women’s and Gender Studies
Melody Lehn, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric
Andrea Mansker, Professor of History
Paige Schneider, Assistant Professor of Politics, Women’s and Gender Studies
Eric Thurman, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, and Chair

Sid Brown, Professor of Religious Studies and Environmental Arts and Humanities
Alexander Bruce, Associate Dean of the College
Kati Curts, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Aaron Elrod, Associate Professor of Economics
Christopher Eppolito, Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics
Terri Fisher, Teaching Professor of Psychology
Kerry Ginger, Assistant Professor of Music
Sarah Lacy Hamilton, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre
David Haskell, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies
Paul Holloway, University Professor of Classics and Ancient Christianity
Mark Hopwood, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Ian Jensen, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Parker Lawson, Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish
Pamela Royston Macfie, Samuel R. Williamson University Professor, Emerita
Sean Patrick O’Rourke, Professor & Chair, Rhetoric; Professor & Chair, American Studies
Clint Smith, Associate Professor of Biology
Katherine Theyson, Associate Professor of Economics
Lauryl Tucker, Professor of English
Leslie Todd, Assistant Professor of Art History
Lisa Burner, Assistant Professor of Spanish
Kate Cammack, Associate Professor of Psychology
Jennifer K. Matthews, Professor of Theatre
Stephanie McCarter, Professor of Classics
Karen Yu, Professor of Psychology
Adriana Colom Cruz, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology
Kristen Cecala, Associate Professor of Biology
Kelly Malone, Professor of English
Catherine Cavagnaro, Professor of Mathematics
Linnea Minich, Information Literacy Librarian
Lily Thompson, Assistant Professor of Geology
Shelley MacLaren, Director and Curator of Academic Engagement, UAG
Sherry Hamby, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology
Emily Puckette, Professor of Mathematics
Ruth Sánchez Imizcoz, Professor of Spanish
Chris Shelley, Assistant Professor of Biology
Chris Van de Ven, Manager, Landscape Analysis Lab
Marc St-Pierre, Associate Professor of Economics
Anna Foy, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Jennifer Michael, Professor of English
Tam K. Parker, Professor of Religious Studies
Shana Minkin, Associate Professor of International and Global Studies
Patrick J. Gauding, Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics
Matt Schrader, Associate Professor of Biology
Alison J. Miller, Associate Professor of Art History
Elise Kikis, Associate Professor and Chair of Biology
Giordano Mazza, Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish and Italian
Aymeric Glacet, Professor of French and French Studies
Lucía García-Santana, Associate Professor of Spanish
Arturo Márquez-Gómez, Associate Professor of Spanish and Italian
C. Albert Bardi, Associate Professor of Psychology
Robert E. Bachman, F.B. Williams Professor of Chemistry
Richard Apgar, Associate Professor of German and German Studies
Kelly Whitmer, Associate Professor of History
John C. Willis, duPont Professor of History
Rongson Pongdee, Professor of Chemistry
Jon Evans, Professor of Biology
Matthew David Mitchell, Associate Professor of History
Martin Knoll, Professor of Geology/Hydrology

One comment

  1. Hogwash! Sad to see the decline of the “teachers” at Sewanee. Is this what we are being asked to support with our money? If a female student is so stupid or irresponsible as to get pregnant while in college and has to go out of state for an abortion, “so what.” Excuse her missed classes.
    Female students (just like any student) should want to come to Sewanee because of the beautiful campus and the chance for a great education received from great teachers.
    Sad to see the decline of the educators.

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