What the ‘Roe v. Wade’ Ruling Means for Education

By Sarah Schwartz

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, removing the constitutional right to abortion that had been in place for nearly 50 years in all states and setting off a chain of effects that could have wide-reaching consequences for schools, educators, and the children they serve.

The ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will effectively ban abortions in 13 states that have passed so-called “trigger laws,” which were written to enact abortion restrictions upon the overruling of Roe. Several other states are expected to reintroduce bills that would do the same, while others move to firm up their own laws protecting abortion.

On Friday, many education groups condemned the court’s decision, suggesting the opinion may be a precursor to future decisions related to LGBTQ marriage, gender equality, and birth control. Advocates for comprehensive sex education said that the ruling underscored the importance of providing students with knowledge and resources for pregnancy prevention. And students on both sides of the issue voiced their opinions on the reversal of a ruling that had been in place for their entire lifetimes.

While a handful of school boards have taken stances on abortion, it’s a politically charged issue that most avoid.

Yet the decision stands to reshape the contours of the school-age population and the people who work in it. And it is likely to affect school systems for generations.

  • Over the coming years, for instance, schools could see a shift in the needs of the children schools serve. Economists have documented that abortion access tends to lower poverty rates and reduce cases of childhood neglect and abuse.
  • While teenagers account for a relatively small percentage of those who get abortions, researchers estimate that new restrictions could lead to an uptick in teen births—putting new demands on schools in a system that some experts argue already fails to support teen parents in academic success and graduation.
  • The court’s decision will also affect the educator workforce: About 76 percent of teachers are women, and most don’t have access to paid parental leave or health plans that cover abortion. Perennial issues around child-care, breastfeeding, and work-life balance continue to make the profession difficult for new parents, teachers say.

Leaders of the national teachers’ unions, which represent the nation’s majority-female education workforce, said that the decision was part of a troubling pattern.

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The order is “another example of how, over the last few years, we have seen the same faction of politicians working overtime to reverse decades of progress on racial justice, on women’s rights, on worker’s rights, on LGBTQ+ rights, on voting rights, on our right to privacy, and on our students’ freedom to learn in our public schools,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

“These attacks on our freedoms are designed to do one thing—consolidate unfettered power into the hands of a few,” Pringle said. “We must stand up for all of our rights.”

Seventy-eight percent of the NEA’s members are women, and the organization, the nation’s largest labor union, has repeatedly approved statements and filed legal briefs in support of abortion rights.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten linked the Dobbs ruling to other recent Supreme Court decisions this week, including those on states’ firearm laws and public funding for students to attend religious schools.

“In the span of 24 hours, this court ruled that states can’t regulate gun owners but can regulate the bodies of anyone who can reproduce,” she said.

Other groups celebrated the decision. Students for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group, said in a statement that the ruling represented a “historic moment that will determine the fate of millions of precious children,” noting plans to push for legislation that would restrict abortion at the state level.

Pro-abortion rights student activists also pledged to lobby state lawmakers. In a statement, the anti-gun-violence organization March for Our Lives called the ruling a “racist,” “classist,” attack.

“We have organized before and won, and we will organize again to protect our right to be free of gun violence and choose what we do with our bodies,” it said.

While teachers’ unions are generally supportive of abortion access, not all teachers favor of abortion rights.

Rebecca Friedrichs, the plaintiff in the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME case that overturned agency fees for teachers’ unions, was staunchly anti-abortion and opposed to the NEA’s support of Planned Parenthood. In a 2019 opinion piece, Friedrichs said that unions’ support of abortion rights was one of the factors that drove her case.

Districts’ employment policies, health curricula in question

The court ruled 5-4 to overrule its decisions in 1973’s Roe decision and 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey that recognized and reaffirmed a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. The court ruled 6-3 to uphold a Mississippi law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, but the dismantling of a federal constitutional right to abortion is expected to result in about half the states prohibiting the procedure.

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The decision will affect changes within a patchwork quilt of state laws and employer policies about abortion, and it was unclear Friday how school districts might respond.

Twenty-two states restrict abortion coverage in public employee health insurance plans, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports the procedure. Following a leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in May, some private companies in states weighing new abortion restrictions promised to cover the cost of travel for abortion services. They viewed such moves as necessary for employee recruitment and retention, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management.

The overturning of Roe has also raised new concerns for groups that work to prevent teen pregnancy and offer access to comprehensive sex education.

“We do know that if a student, whether in high school or even at the college level, has an unplanned pregnancy, that definitely impacts them furthering their education and then can have devastating consequences for their economic upward mobility,” said Gillian Sealey, the chief of staff at Power to Decide, formerly the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage and Unplanned Pregnancy.

“The ruling really makes it harder to get basic health care, and it disproportionately affects young people, you know, people living in communities of color, and people living in rural areas,” Sealey said.

Teen pregnancy and abortion rates have both declined since the early 1990s. Even so, about a quarter of all 15- to 19-year-olds who get pregnant elect to have an abortion, according to Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization.

Health and sexuality education may need to flex, too. Sex-ed programs are highly local and most states don’t reference abortion in the topics they require to be covered. School health education advocates said that the court’s decision underscored the importance of a comprehensive approach.

Jeanie Alter, the executive director of the American School Health Association, said in a statement that the decision underscores the importance of “work being done by health educators and nurses in our schools and communities to provide comprehensive sex education and school-based and community health centers to provide access to contraception.”

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In a response to the court’s leaked draft decision, the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health raised concerns that some politicians had since voiced support for bans on birth control. Friday, in a concurring opinion to the Dobbs decision, Justice Clarence Thomas said that the court should also reconsider Griswold v. Connecticut—the 1965 case that said the state couldn’t prevent a married couple from using birth control.

“Birth control use is a personal choice and is not equivalent to abortion,” the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health said in a June 14 statement. “We are concerned that the overturn of Roe v. Wade may weaken other legal cases that make birth control accessible for all people.”

Read More

Education Week dug into some of the legal implications for schools after the leak of the draft opinion in early May. Many of those insights continue to apply. Read more in these two pieces.

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