Harris Discusses Abortion Access With University Leaders

Vice President Kamala Harris met with college leaders to discuss concerns about reproductive healthcare in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Published August 10, 2022

Harris Discusses Abortion Access With University Leaders
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images

  • The roundtable discussion included officials from several prominent colleges across the U.S.
  • Women between the ages of 20 and 29 who are pursuing higher education are put at risk because of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Harris said.
  • Campus leaders also voiced concerns about supporting their students in off-campus situations, the health of minority students, and the potential impact on completion rates and medical studies programs.

On Monday afternoon, Vice President Kamala Harris met with university and college leaders to discuss their concerns following the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had upheld the universal right to abortion for the last five decades.

Led by Harris and moderated by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, the roundtable discussion included campus leaders representing red and blue states; large, small, public, and private universities; historically Black colleges and universities, predominantly white institutions, and a university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Sharing their views were officials from Oberlin College, Reed College, Gallaudet University, Howard University, Tennessee State University, Dartmouth College, the City University of New York, and the University of California, Irvine.

According to the vice president, and echoed by several of the campus leaders, women between the ages of 20 and 29 in the higher education sector are going to face great challenges because of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

College students are at a high risk for needing access to abortions, Harris said. They may face an unwanted pregnancy while trying to pursue their studies and a degree. They may have to deal with financial constraints and a limited ability to travel to get an abortion. And the rate of sexual violence on college campuses continues to grow.

"This is a real issue for our campuses," Mitchell said. "This is a real issue for our students … The clock is ticking on every campus at every university in America to figure out what can and what cannot be done to support students, faculty, and staff, in particular, to answer the questions whether students do or do not have access to the full range of reproductive healthcare."

The vice president has previously spoken out against the Supreme Court's decision in June and stressed the importance of reproductive healthcare. Harris has also held meetings with Latina state legislators, Massachusetts state legislators and advocates, and faith leaders in the past month.

Campus Leaders Discuss Main Concerns

The campus leaders shared three universal concerns during the roundtable discussion, in addition to their general concern for their students' well-being:

Supporting Students in Off-Campus Environments

Even at universities where abortion access will be protected by state law, leaders share concern about students' well-being and legal protections when they are not on campus. The same concern extends to students who are out of state but still use the college's healthcare facilities.

Audrey Bilger, president of Reed College, said college students can be vulnerable in their home states or in states where they are doing internships or conducting research during breaks.

"Howard has students from 46 states, so this decision is a very complex issue, as we are grappling with parents and students who are moving back and forth, not just through breaks, but through crises," said Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University.

The Health of Minority Students

The Supreme Court's decision threatens to extend the healthcare disparities that already exist in the U.S., college leaders said.

"For the deaf and disabled community, due process and equal protection of rights are critical. Now, Dobbs has challenged the future of equity and protective rights for reproduction. It's a great concern over these hard-won rights by marginalized communities," said Roberta Cordano from Gallaudet University, the only U.S. institution in higher education that is specifically designed to accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing students.

"How do we ensure that women with disabilities, who suffer sexual violence at least one-and-a-half times more than other women, that they will have rights to care for their body and care for their health?" she said.

According to Howard's president, "The response to this decision has certainly helped to shed some light on some of the most pressing healthcare disparities that the Black community continues to endure."

"Black women are three times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth and Black children have the highest rates of infant mortality. So while there may be differences in opinion on the Dobbs ruling, we must all agree that reproductive health must be made safer for Black women, and we must do more to support Black women's choices," he said.

With Roe v. Wade being overturned, some worry that other areas could be at risk down the road, like the right to same-sex marriage. The LGBTQ+ community is at risk of losing rights that have been gained over generations of struggles because of this ruling and others that might follow, said Félix Matos Rodriguez, the chancellor of the City University of New York.

The Potential Impact on Completion Rates and Medical Studies Programs

The leaders at the roundtable agreed that higher education will take a severe hit in a post-Roe era. They are concerned mostly with "institutions' abilities to recruit and train the next generation of healthcare professionals," according to a brief from the White House.

"Uncertainties such as reproductive health affects them [students] and affects their decision, but it also affects their academic success," said Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University. She added that universities across the country will have to plan for lower completion and graduation rates generally because of the decision.

Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, is concerned about "training the next generation of medical practitioners in family planning, in obstetrics, in gynecology," which he believes will be severely disrupted.

"Those of us with academic medical centers, in particular, have a special responsibility to work together to make sure we can train that next generation in a way that meets this vital national need," Gillman said.

Frederick is concerned that Black medical students and physicians will have to bear a greater burden to "ensure that underrepresented women are protected and given expert [reproductive] care with due diligence."

Higher Education as a 'Microcosm of Society'

Despite the concerns expressed at the roundtable discussion, there may be some signs of hope, according to one college leader.

"College campuses tend to be microcosms of society. These inequities will play out on our campuses in the same way that they play out in society. But despite these concerns, as the vote in Kansas has demonstrated, the progression of our national debate on this matter will not be linear," said Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College.

"Today's adversity represents an opportunity for all institutions of higher education to provide a venue where we can practice how to have difficult conversations and how we can listen more fully to each other," she added.