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  • Emily Maran

Policies Grounded in Neutrality

Updated: Apr 16

On June 24th, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abandoning fifty years of precedent for the right to choose to have an abortion in the United States. The court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization revoked the constitutional right to an abortion, thus allowing states to impose abortion bans and restrictions. This decision sparked nationwide protest, suffering, and distress as millions of women and individuals with the ability to become pregnant lost their fundamental right to choose. The overturn of Roe created new challenges for women across the United States, including those pursuing higher education.

The ability to terminate an unwanted pregnancy allows college students to pursue and complete higher education. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control released in 2020, women in their twenties account for 57% of all abortions provided. As part of the Dobbs case, over 150 economists filed a Brief of Amici Curiae that argued the illegalization of abortion would have consequential impacts on women’s educational attainment and future wage earnings, specifically for Black women, as access to higher education reduces their poverty and dependence on public assistance. A study conducted by the Institute of Labor Economics in November of 2021 found that in states with abortion restrictions, women under 18 enroll in college at a rate of three percent less than women in states where abortion is legal. More so, research from American University published in 2021 revealed that the elimination of abortion access would reduce women’s education attainment by 4.9% and lower college attainment by 5.6%. Abortion allows college students to place their education first; yet today, in the wake of Dobbs, abortion policies raise concerns for universities and their students. Because federal and state laws are constantly changing, it is unclear how the government will continue to restrict abortion rights for women. Thus, universities– particularly private institutions that are not subject to political influence from their state-based sponsors– are in a unique position to aid students in navigating post-Roe laws that directly impact their health and future outcomes.

The end of Roe fundamentally altered society in the United States and the role of universities in supporting their students who become pregnant. Some college presidents denounced the court’s decision, while others applauded it and praised its success in saving millions of lives. For example, interim President Mary Sue Coleman of the University of Michigan, a public university in a state where abortion is legal up to twenty-four weeks, stressed the significance of the right to choose with her statement,  “I strongly support access to abortion services, and I will do everything in my power as president to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care.” In a completely different response, Jerry Prevo, President of Liberty University, a private Christian university in Virginia, where abortion is also legal until the third trimester, heralded the new abortion restrictions and “thanked Almighty God” for the landmark decision. Other universities, such as Tulane, took a neutral stance on the court’s verdict. 

Tulane University is a private institution located in New Orleans, Louisiana, a conservative state. The New Orleans population is more than 35% Catholic, yet the city is progressive and democratic, and most Tulane students also identify with liberal political ideologies. Abortion is now completely banned in Louisiana with limited exceptions for life-threatening situations. In an immediate response to the June 24th, 2020 Supreme Court decision, Tulane University released a public statement that detailed the implementation of a working group to comprehend the impact of the ruling on the university and create changes in Tulane policies in response. In the statement, the university recommended that concerned individuals contact Campus Health with additional questions regarding reproductive health services and expressed their commitment to supporting the Tulane community. Tulane spokespeople noted that their working group would provide public updates regarding changes to university policies and programs; however, no information has been made available since the initial statement over one year ago.

Following the first public statement, students, faculty, and alums sent two requests urging Tulane to take a stance on the Dobbs case and provide detailed resources and clarity for students and campus employees seeking an abortion. The second letter, gaining 1,413 signatures, was sent to the university on July 20th, 2022, and noted, “The call to respond to the Dobbs decision is not only a call to support the reproductive health of women, girls, and people who can become pregnant, but a call for the university to make an explicit, systematic, and intentional effort to address the intersecting issues of sexism, racism, classism and homophobia on campus more broadly.” The letter recognizes Tulane’s position as a leader in public health and medicine and, therefore, the importance of Tulane’s dedication to supporting abortion rights. Months later, on September 1st, 2022, President Michael A. Fitts attempted to answer the questions posed in the letter through a public statement. Yet, he only reaffirmed Tulane’s neutral stance on the Dobbs decision, writing, “While as an institution, Tulane does not take a position on issues such as this, we understand its importance and impact and pledge to support our community’s health care needs, including those involving reproductive health, to the fullest extent allowed by law.” Fitts notes that the university commits to assisting students up to the legal restrictions of state laws. However, in Louisiana, abortion laws do not have any current restrictions for aiding and abetting an abortion; therefore, Tulane is legally allowed to outwardly identify with pro-access and pro-choice policies yet fails to do so.

While not included in any public statements, Tulane University added a new “Abortion Access” page to its pregnancy website. The site includes information about pregnancy prevention, emergency contraceptives, and ways to get an abortion. The page refers those who believe they may be pregnant to consult Campus Health and Case Management to inquire about obtaining funding for out-of-state travel to get an abortion or receive excused absences for exams. While the webpage is a valuable resource to students and faculty, there is no reference to this site in official university statements, emails, or newsletters. Additionally, the lack of specificity, uncertainty, and generalization in the language on the site may deter students from contacting Case Management and involving the university in their endeavors to access reproductive healthcare and counseling. Students must first discover this resource independently and then advocate for themselves to their case manager, placing them in a vulnerable position before they know whether or not they will receive funding from the university. 

In addition to the Tulane-run abortion website, many on-campus student organizations are working to send educational materials and guidelines surrounding abortion policies in Louisiana to students. For example, Big Easy EC is a student-run program that anonymously delivers free emergency contraception (EC) to Tulane students. Megan Roche, a junior at Tulane and Engagement Coordinator for Big Easy EC for the 2023-2024 school year, shared insight on the organization's challenges, “I think Big Easy EC’s biggest issue is that most students are not aware of our organization.” Tulane does not explicitly call attention to student groups such as Big Easy EC; therefore, individuals must find these informative sources independently. Tulane has more freedom to promote and publish pro-access information than other universities in states with aiding and abetting laws; therefore, it is a lost opportunity and failure of the institution not to use its platform to better support and educate its community. 

The average Tulane student is in the financial position to receive an abortion without using the university as a resource; still, Tulane should highlight abortion funding policies to support students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Tulane students have a median family income of $180,700, and 69% come from the top 20 percent of the income bracket. The Louisiana Abortion Fund, a non-profit organization that provides financial and emotional support to assist residents in the Gulf South in obtaining legal abortion care, spends around $2,343 per patient on their flight, procedure, hotel cost, and other expenses they may encounter while traveling. Therefore, it is assumed the typical Tulane student would also spend around two thousand dollars to receive an out-of-state abortion. If they choose to involve their family, students from affluent backgrounds can afford to acquire an abortion without using the university as a resource. However, as mentioned in “At a Crossroads: The Impact of Abortion Access on Future Economic Outcomes,” allowing students to get an abortion without notifying their parents positively affects college graduation rates, particularly for Black women. As an institution that pledges to support its community’s health care needs, it is Tulane’s responsibility to ensure its students, specifically under-represented and low-income individuals, have the equal ability to obtain a college degree without interruption from an unwanted pregnancy. In “The Motherhood Penalty Begins in College,” the authors recommend colleges to establish open-access emergency funds for pregnant students pursuing an out-of-state abortion and “make its existence known in clinics and classrooms alike.” Straightforward pro-access support by universities is particularly influential for low-income women pursuing higher education, and thus advancing social mobility as a college degree increases the chances of an individual moving from the bottom to middle-income brackets by 53%. Therefore, Tulane should change campus guidelines to outwardly educate its student body on pro-choice options to assist the entire student body, principally their low-income and less-affluent students. 

Tulane University has not used its position to aid its community in connecting with pro-access resources and funding opportunities. This failure will disproportionately impact less affluent students and women of color who rely on Tulane as their primary form of support and financial assistance. In addition to the implications for college attainment and employment opportunities, the loss of federal abortion protection will have future implications for higher education, such as reduced college attendance of Black women in states where abortion is restricted, disruption of medical school training, changes in faculty locations, and impacts admission statistics as students rethink where they want to attend university. As more research is made available, scholars such as Dr. Brigham Walker and Dr. Janna Wisnieski from Tulane University have found that schools located in states where abortion is illegal saw a one percentage point drop in the share of female applicants for the Class of 2026. More so, 2022 polling from Gallup discovered that 73% of unenrolled and currently enrolled college-age adults stated that reproductive laws were factored into their decision when deciding whether to enroll in college. 

In all course syllabi for the Fall of 2023, Tulane University added a clause under the previously instated Title IX policy. This new change adds a safeguard for pregnant and parenting students and affirms that “Tulane is committed to providing equal access to academic programs and extracurricular activities to students who might be, are, or have been pregnant.” However, this protection once again directs students to the Tulane Pregnancy Website to find further information and resources and does not specifically name resources available to students. The fight for reproductive rights is not over, and universities such as Tulane can assist students in ensuring they fulfill their educational goals. Moving forward, Tulane should focus on pro-education policies that  put forth informative material to its campus-wide community. Tulane University must advance the importance of abortion access as a means to have a successful educational career for its students.


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