From the Community | Dear Stanford, Reproductive Justice isn’t a “controversial issue”

Aug. 16, 2022, 11:13 p.m.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson and the initial consequences in states already banning abortion are heartbreaking and chilling. Upon hearing the decision at the end of June, we initially struggled to focus on research while processing this egregious attack on our and our loved ones’ human rights. Stanford’s inadequate response only exacerbated this betrayal.

We were incredibly disheartened by Stanford’s institutional reaction. There was no public statement, only a vague email signed by the Dean of the Medical School and the Executive Director of Vaden Health Services on June 24 stating that “this is a controversial issue.” Blandly pointing out that there is a “controversy,” while technically accurate, is a woefully lacking response to such a calamitous setback. As an academic institution with considerable privilege and voice, we are responsible for speaking out against injustice and not catering to both sides. As women at Stanford, we were shocked and frustrated to receive an email with no clear stance supporting the right of all people to bodily autonomy. 

Although a semi-apologetic response to the first communication was later sent out to the Stanford Medicine community, it was not sent to the entire university, and we did not receive it in the School of Engineering. We expected more from Stanford’s leadership, especially since this Supreme Court decision was leaked in May (at which time Stanford Law Professor Bernadette Meyler expressed concerns that the leaked decision would substantially set back gender equity in our country). That should have provided ample time for University administration for University administration to plan a stronger response to such a monumental injustice.

In an email sent announcing Stanford’s Rally for Reproductive Rights, Senior Associate Dean for Global Health Michele Barry warned, “this decision will deepen inequities, jeopardize access to safe healthcare, and cost lives.” The shifting legal framework is already forcing doctors to leave “people waiting until death’s door before treatment is given” in order to avoid legal repercussions, as Kate Shaw, Director of Gynecology at Stanford Health Care, explained at the rally on June 27. Moreover, Stephanie Melchor, an OB/GYN resident, drove home the sobering reality that this regressive decision disproportionately impacts marginalized communities.

The Supreme Court ruling highlights the lack of diverse gender representation across our government’s highest offices. Five of the six individuals on the Supreme Court who signed the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson are anatomically exempt from the consequences of their decision. The same lack of representation extends throughout our other branches of government, institutions, companies, and Stanford. As of 2020, only 19% of the faculty in the School of Engineering are women. In the School of Medicine, only 33% of the faculty are women. The representation of racial and other gender marginalized groups is even lower. This lack of representation is an issue in academia beyond Stanford, with concerns now being raised that the fall of Roe could halt or reverse progress in including more women in academia.

Why has Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who has worked extensively in the medical industry, not made any statement about this monumental stripping away of Americans’ fundamental rights? Previously, our President and Provost issued a joint statement in honor of International Women’s Day: “We will continue the vital work of making our university more fully inclusive and supportive of all women.” If Stanford leadership wants to say they support women, they need to demonstrate it when our fundamental human rights are under attack. Rather than assurances about how Stanford will “abide by California state laws,” we want Stanford leadership to drive a call to action across universities, similar to how California has led the country at the state level in protecting a woman’s right to choose.

We call on Stanford leadership to clearly and publicly affirm that abortion access is an internationally established human right as defined by the United Nations, and that the impacts of repealing Roe v. Wade are catastrophic for women and other people seeking reproductive healthcare. We call on Stanford to take direct action and issue a much stronger, university-wide statement supporting reproductive justice, in line with previous promises to women and marginalized communities. This statement should come from Stanford’s President and Provost, and should be sent to the entire Stanford community and posted publicly on Stanford’s website. University presidents at peer institutions (such as the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley) have taken much stronger public stands.

We also call on Stanford leadership to take direct action and transparently inform the community about ongoing actions to improve gender equity across campus. Tell us what initiatives are ongoing to address the lack of representation of women and gender marginalized people in Stanford’s faculty. Amplify the voices of women law professors at Stanford such as Jane Schacter and Michelle Mello. Highlight and support innovative research related to reproductive healthcare from the School of Medicine and beyond. For example, the Doerr School of Sustainability, which will open on Sept. 1, can connect and fund research related to the intersection of reproductive justice and environmental justice

Without the recognition that the Supreme Court overturning of Roe has life-threatening impacts on women and those seeking abortion-related healthcare, any response falls short. There is evidence that lack of access to legal abortions results in increased rates of domestic violence, and yet women in Missouri are not allowed to get a divorce while pregnant. Any legal decisions upholding or reverting toward a more patriarchal society have incredibly harmful impacts on people of all genders, with harms disproportionately falling on marginalized and exploited communities.

In Stanford’s 2021 IDEAL DEI survey, 46% of trans people, 40% of gender non-binary people, and 21% of women experienced harassing behaviors, a significantly elevated proportion relative to men (15%). Recently The Stanford Daily reported that professor Vincent Barletta, who still remains a tenured faculty member at the University, was the subject of three Title IX cases that found that Barletta had harassed one of his students. This situation is just one part of an ongoing history of sexual violence on campus. These statistics and stories highlight Stanford’s struggles to create an equitable environment, which directly relates to the underrepresentation of marginalized genders in positions of power and also helps explain the insensitivity and inadequacy of Stanford’s institutional responses.

Our disappointment in Stanford’s lack of a public stance is no doubt amplified by the amount of energy we and other marginalized students, faculty, and staff have personally invested in making Stanford live up to its ideals. As women in academia, we have witnessed firsthand how women and other marginalized groups (in academia and beyond) bear the brunt of unpaid labor, including in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. This is routinely frustrating and tiring, but becomes downright infuriating when Stanford’s leaders miss the mark as badly as they did on June 24th. 

At the same time, we are continually inspired by women leaders in Stanford Medicine who provide and advocate for this essential reproductive care, and others throughout the University who strive to improve DEI, despite institutional hurdles. As Shaw put it: “At Stanford, let’s be leaders and advocates in ensuring comprehensive, safe, and legal access to abortion and that all essential healthcare can be decided by an individual and their doctor.” 

We remain hopeful that Stanford’s leadership will take this opportunity to listen to, learn from, and amplify the voices of our very own experts on reproductive healthcare and realize that neutrality only ever supports the oppressor.

Tess Hegarty is a doctoral student in Civil Engineering, where she focuses on building decarbonization via probabilistic life cycle assessment. She is a co-leader of Engineering Students for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ES4DEI).

Jenny Skerker is a doctoral student in Environmental Engineering, where she focuses on incorporating equity into water resources systems-level planning. She is a co-leader for Engineering Students for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ES4DEI).

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