Last May, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling was leaked, Susquehanna University students sprang into action to console others by leaving carnations and reassuring notes across campus.
“Peers left flowers with notes saying ‘We care about you,’” said senior Elizabeth Bosanko. “Students recognized that this is a decision that harms and scares a lot of people.”
While Bosanko was born nearly three decades after the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision, the senior, who is a double major in communications and political science, is taking an active role in the continued discussion of the abortion and reproductive rights issue as states throughout the country grapple with the consequences of its reversal.
In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the U.S. Supreme Court last summer overturned the 52-year-old Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion.
Some state constitutions, including Pennsylvania’s, currently protect abortion rights. Several states, including Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia, have partial or near total abortion bans.
“Growing up in Maryland in a heavily government area, I was very aware of Roe,” Bosanko said. “We grew up watching these things on TV news, talking about it around the dinner table and with friends. As a woman, I very strongly feel women’s rights need to be protected.”
Senior Kaylee Kauffman said she dove into the topic of abortion and privacy rights in her studies at Susquehanna where she is a double major in legal studies and psychology with a minor in public policy.
There have been “invigorating conversations” and some “pretty awkward” moments, Kauffman said, but classmates — who she said hold various firm opinions on the subject — have been respectful of one another.
“The beautiful thing about pro-choice is no one will ever be forced to have an abortion,” she said.
For assistant professors of political science like Alison Merrill, of SU, and Kate Bermingham, at Bucknell University, the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision has been a talking point in several classes.
“Overturning that many years of precedence is not very common,” said Merrill, who had to rework the curriculum in her constitutional law class to explore such points as what case law the court used to support their decision in reversing the landmark Roe v. Wade.
“We’re not talking about abortion as much as civil liberty,” she said. In the upcoming fall semester, Merrill said, she’ll examine with students the impact on individual freedoms and the history of privacy rights.
Bermingham, whose expertise includes reproductive justice and feminist critiques of the history of political thought, advised students in her political theory class to “approach the subject as if someone in the room has had an abortion.”
“My job is to teach the history of this decision. We’ll talk about how political change occurs,” she said.
Bermingham is coordinating two upcoming panels for Bucknell’s Institute for Public Policy to include a comparative and international approach to thinking about abortion rights and reproductive justice that will feature experts in South Asia, Europe, Latin America and possibly U.S. foreign policy.
She’s also scheduling an online conversation with Mary Ziegler, a Harvard law graduate and prominent legal historian of the abortion debate in the U.S.
As a way of addressing concerns of Susquehanna students who have widely divergent viewpoints on abortion, Merrill invited them to speak with her privately in order to keep personal views out of the classroom.
“We’re talking about hot-button issues and (the classroom) is a place where I want them to feel comfortable,” she said. “Over the summer I had several students reach out to me to help them understand the implications or share their joy” with the Roe v. Wade reversal.
For older Americans, the abortion debate remains a controversial issue.
“Life begins at conception, no ifs, ands or buts,” said Irene Harris, a Snyder County resident and conservative activist.
For Lana Gulden, of Northumberland, and Lynn Palermo, of Lewisburg, it’s not so clear-cut.
“All my life, I’ve been pro-choice. I don’t remember a minute when I felt someone else should have control over my body,” said Gulden.
The 79-year-old is also concerned that access to contraceptives will also be eroded. “I don’t know why people are so afraid of women and our reproduction capacity,” she said.
Palermo, a Susquehanna University professor who has written many columns on the abortion issue for The Daily Item, said men are often left out of the discussion.
“Does this mean men only want sex when they want a child?” she said.
When the Roe v. Wade decision came down 50 years ago, Gulden was a 29-year-old mother of three.
“My family was complete,” she said. Still, knowing that women had a constitutional right to decide their own fate was “a great thing.”
Gulden and Palermo recalled the 1967 death of Leslie Roberts, a 19-year-old from New Jersey, who died in a Shamokin Dam motel after taking a drug to end a pregnancy.
Charges were brought against the pharmacist who sold the drug and Roberts’ male companion, but the young woman’s death left a traumatic emptiness for her family and an enduring, harrowing impression on others.
“My fear is that we’re going back to that,” said Gulden.
While the death of Roberts is tragic, Harris said, people should remember that a child died as well.
“I’m tired of women complaining that it’s old men making these decisions” to overturn abortion rights, Harris said. “It’s women like us who are driving the pro-life movement.”