Opinion Submission: Why WashU should take a stronger stance for abortion

, and | 2020-2022 Student Body President, 2022-2023 Student Body President, and 2023-2024 Student Body President

We are three student body presidents from across four years, who have been or will be representing student voices and advocating for student needs at the university level. As proud and open supporters of abortion access, we were disappointed by the Chancellor’s lukewarm public stance on abortion, which dismissed the struggles of millions across this country to access reproductive healthcare as “strong feelings” and “diversity of thought.” We feel a moral responsibility to speak out and ask for more from the University. 

Abortion is a human right and a vital healthcare decision. Missouri’s outright ban on abortion is an assault on the dignity of pregnant people across our state, depriving millions of the choice to make their own medical decisions. As a university with a “strong commitment to medical education and patient care,” we should be far more decisive in our public support for abortion access. Amidst heightened efforts by the state legislature to eliminate abortion access, we urge the University to establish a far stronger public position in favor of reproductive freedom, in line with our support for Medicaid expansion in 2020.

Students have already made the compelling moral case for abortion. We want to be clear that these arguments alone are valuable and should motivate the University’s political and public stances as we approach this critical issue. 

But we also want to make the case that supporting abortion is good for WashU: it’s good for attracting talented students, faculty, and staff; good for the wellbeing of all St. Louisans and Missourians; and good for continued growth and development. In every way, the complete ban on abortion in our state is only designed to appeal to a radical and fringe minority rooted in fear, not science.

We know the University’s long-term goals seek to foster academic excellence, quality patient care, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. The University’s strategic planning clearly states that our long-term vision aspires “to welcome students, faculty, and staff from all backgrounds to create an inclusive, equitable community that is nurturing and intellectually rigorous.” To truly commit ourselves to St. Louis, we work “to contribute positively to our home community of St. Louis, and to effect meaningful, constructive change in our world.” 

For the University’s Make Way initiative, we speak about cultivating an “exceptional student experience,” where students “feel at-home and have every opportunity to shine.” Abortion bans categorically inhibit our University’s capacity to compete on the national and international level by closing off access to healthcare, deterring talent from coming to WashU, hurting St. Louisans, and weakening our ability to provide excellent medical care and education for our students and patients.

Consider how one in four high school students refuse to attend college in a state where abortion is banned, or how two in five workers are open to relocating to another state because of concerns over a lack of abortion options. It is no wonder that people are hesitant to learn, work, and live in St. Louis when we hear horror stories about Missouri women needing to travel hundreds of miles across three states to get abortions that are recommended by their doctors, or how women in nearby cities are denied pregnancy care until the brink of death because of state restrictions. Denying abortion care creates a dystopian hellscape for reproductive health access as doctors deny life-saving care because of vague laws. The abortion ban harms couples who have historically been able to access fertility healthcare, as couples now face uncertainty in whether or not they can access in vitro fertilization. It increases the likelihood that college students drop out of their programs because of unwanted pregnancies and impose over $105 billion in aggregate costs to the national economy.

Abortion restrictions greatly inhibit the University’s ability to provide the highest quality abortion care and education for patients. For this reason, chancellors and presidents at other universities — including in moderate or conservative states, like Michigan and Georgia — have issued compelling statements supporting the right to choose. 

President Mary Sue Coleman at the University of Michigan wrote on June 24, 2022: “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.” President Fenves of Emory University wrote on that same day that the Dobbs decision was a “painful regression,” acknowledging that “the effects of restrictive abortion laws have the greatest impact on low-income women and women of color, who are often underserved by our nation’s health care system.” 

In 2020, another issue that could be described as attracting a “diversity of thought and opinion” — Medicaid Expansion — was confronted when Chancellor Martin and Dean Perlmutter offered decisive moral clarity and leadership: “We believe strongly in this campaign because of its potential to expand access to healthcare for Missouri residents who desperately need it.” 

Voting in favor of Amendment 2 represented a part of the “profoundly important role all of us can play in beginning to address these issues in the broader community and [a]ffecting specific public policy changes that will help the most vulnerable among us.” They cited that Medicaid expansion was empirically supported, would shrink the racial wealth gap, and would help our economy. Most insightfully, they shared that healthcare and education “are inextricable.” 

We couldn’t agree more. And, in part with WashU’s support, Amendment 2 passed with 53% of Missourians voting in favor. 

Now, we need the same clarity and leadership on abortion. Abortion is strikingly similar in its scientific backing and impacts for our local community. Protecting abortion rights ensures that vulnerable populations — including women of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and low-income pregnant people — are able to get the healthcare that they need. In July 2022, 75 national healthcare organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the American Academy of Nursing — released a statement opposing legislative interference with abortion decisions, reflecting a scientific consensus on the critical nature of safe, reliable, and private abortion access. Ensuring access to abortion protects the healthcare of all St. Louisans and Missourians, a right that is “inextricable” to pursuing meaningful education.

Soon, WashU will have another opportunity to speak in favor of abortion access — and to get it right. On March 9, abortion activists revealed a referendum proposal that would protect abortion rights in the state Constitution. If the ACLU is able to successfully sue for the initiative process to move forward, Missourians could vote as early as 2024 to codify this human right into the Constitution, overturning the dehumanizing and disturbing policies that have been passed through our state legislature in recent years.

WashU students deserve to live in a state where the fundamental right to make decisions about our own bodies is protected and codified into law. WashU has the upcoming opportunity to defend economic growth, health equity, women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights, and healthcare for our state’s most vulnerable. We hope that WashU will join us and the vast majority of students, faculty, and staff who support and defend reproductive freedom.

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