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Fifty Years After Roe Decision, Harvard Radcliffe Institute Hosts Conference on Abortion in America

Professor Jane Kamensky speaks at the Friday session of Radcliffe Institute's Age of Roe conference. Panelists professors Jill Lepore, Evelynn M. Hammonds, I. Glenn Cohen, and Erika Bachiochi look on.
Professor Jane Kamensky speaks at the Friday session of Radcliffe Institute's Age of Roe conference. Panelists professors Jill Lepore, Evelynn M. Hammonds, I. Glenn Cohen, and Erika Bachiochi look on. By Addison Y. Liu
By Emily L. Ding, Miles J. Herszenhorn, and Dylan H. Phan, Crimson Staff Writers

Hundreds gathered at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for a two-day conference about abortion rights and legislation in the United States on Thursday evening and Friday.

The conference, hosted just days after the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, discussed how the issue of abortion has been impacted by the initial ruling and its reversal last summer in the Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The ruling in Dobbs, which overturned the Roe decision in a 6-3 vote, eliminated constitutional protections for abortion.

The conference launched Thursday evening with a conversation featuring pro-abortion and anti-abortion activists. Programming on Friday heavily featured academic speakers and focused on four topics related to abortion: international contexts, the impacts of race and class, abortion’s role in American public life, and the future of abortion.

Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin opened the conference on Friday with a speech explaining the historical background of the abortion debate and the theme of the conference.

“As I have written in my own work about law and social change, Supreme Court opinions are never divorced from the broader cultural and social context,” Brown-Nagin said. “Rather, these decisions will shape and reflect national debates about controversial issues.”

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, spoke about the historical context behind abortion in the U.S. during a Friday panel.

“Initially in this country, most abortions were procured by young, poor, and unmarried women. After 1840, we see a rise of medical abortions among middle and upper classes,” Du Mez said. “Male doctors led efforts to criminalize abortion. They argued that life began at conception.”

Daniel K. Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia, highlighted the significance of evangelical Christians on the historical development of the abortion debate and their views on Roe v. Wade.

“By the end of the 1970s, a growing number of evangelicals began to view Roe as the symbol of both secularization and the sexual revolution, and therefore the symbol of all the moral evils they opposed,” Williams said.

Josie Pinto, co-founder of the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire, said they attended the event to expand their knowledge of the academic conversations surrounding abortion.

“I’m thinking a lot about how we can bridge people that work with patients accessing abortion every day and then people who are more studying it in a very theoretical, legal-type space,” Pinto said.

“I was really just excited to hear what people in a more academic space had to say because I work on the frontlines of this work,” they added.

Columbia professor Beverly Winikoff ’66 — who helped develop the abortion pill — said the speakers could have further discussed how changes in abortion law influenced the development of medical technology, noting that Roe ushered in a new wave of medical innovation.

“Not many people have made reference to the fact that the abortion pill was made during the age of Roe, because of Roe, and because of the acceptance that some people will have abortions and they need to have different technology than they’ve had in the past,” Winikoff said.

Jane Kamensky, a history professor at Harvard and the director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, highlighted the importance of having difficult conversations “about what is arguably the most difficult single issue in American life at every level — from the pregnant body, to the household, to the statehouse, and Congress, and the Supreme Court.”

“Talking is harder than trolling,” Kamensky said. “Talking is harder than racking up snaps and props and likes in our echo chambers.”

“But talking across as well as within our hidden tribes is, at its core, the work of democracy and of the civil renewal that we need so badly in the United States,” Kamensky added.

—Staff writer Emily L. Ding can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilylding.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Dylan H. Phan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dylanhieuphan.

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