A renewed opportunity for student advocacy through the lens of reproductive rights

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To witness the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be nothing short of a historical spectacle, representing the relief that the past four years are behind us, and that the next four will hopefully encompass a more transformative and progressive cabinet. Many emotions may come to mind when over 77 million registered voters voiced their support for the Biden-Harris campaign, but along with that lies a sentiment about the 71 million that did not. Although Biden’s win in this election certainly marks a swing towards more reformative thinking, it was by no means the landslide victory that Democrats may have wished for. This reminds us that America is still a divided country. Similarly, we must still persevere until Jan. 20, and in the coming two and a half months, one’s human rights may be at stake. As of today, there remain 17 cases awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court that revolve around reproductive rights and more specifically, access to abortion. If upheld, these decisions would constrain, and in some cases, abolish abortion services in multiple states. While there is much to look forward to in the coming years, we must remain persistent in ensuring that access to reproductive rights remains an essential human right. 

I had the pleasure to sit down with Amanda Skinner (via Zoom), president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes! Connecticut, the advocacy and social welfare arm of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. During our time together, we discussed our reactions to the 2020 election, how to bring forth change through the bottom-up, grassroots movements and how young people are essential to future progress. 

With the announcement of Biden’s win this past Saturday, Amanda shared with me her initial thoughts: “When I heard that Joe Biden was our president-elect and that Kamala Harris was our vice president-elect, I felt two things. The first thing I felt was a sense that I could breathe and a sense of hopefulness for the first time in a long time. But the second thing that I felt was the recognition of the work that is ahead of us, that there is an opportunity when you have an administration that is not constantly putting barriers up in your way and intentionally, through their policies, doing harm to the communities that we serve. I was hopeful, but more I was feeling resolute, like ‘okay, now we have an opportunity. We have an administration that will not be intentionally attempting to cause harm through racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic and generally hatred-based policies.’ And in that spirit, we can really dig into the things that impact the lives of our country’s most marginalized, and try to advance policies that would create a more equitable world.” 

And I think this is the most important part of all of this. I believe many of us shared the same sense of relief but quickly shifted from leaning back to stepping forward once again, as we can now tackle the issues of not only reproductive rights, but also racial justice and the climate crisis, without the constant restraint of the former administration. 

Yet, with a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court, as well as a Senate majority (as of today), one may remain concerned about what could change in regards to reproductive policy. Despite Biden’s victory, the anxiety that the Supreme Court could potentially overturn decisions, such as Roe v. Wade, will not dissipate. With a decidedly conservative Court, the Biden administration may be unable to prevent the challenges that Roe faces, as the court could overturn it on their own accord, and bring abortion back to the transgressional state it was once in.  

So until then, what can we do? If we cannot ensure that Roe is protected under the constitution permanently, how can we fight to protect access to abortion and reproductive rights? Fortunately for many UConn students, Roe has been codified within two state laws for decades, but we must not forget the underrepresented populations who live in what many have deemed as “trigger states,” which, unlike Connecticut, plan to overturn Roe if given the opportunity and continue to enforce other means of restricting organizations such as Planned Parenthood, leaving those in need without access to proper reproductive care. 

However, this does not mean that change has not already ensued. The 2020 election included ballot measures in which progressive thinking prevailed, such as increasing renewable energy sources in Nevada, or the legalization of recreational marijuana in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota. Along with these came a crucial vote in Colorado to protect abortion procedures after 22 weeks of pregnancy, and a mandate for comprehensive sexual education in Washington State public schools. 

Connecticut passed a similar law in 2017, approving a credit of health as a graduation requirement for public school students, which can include sex ed., nutritional science or anatomy. But, a requirement for comprehensive sexual education has yet to exist, and this, according to Amanda, is where students can become involved. “Progress occurs slowly, often, and it fits and starts, but it does occur, and that is because the people that are younger see the need for it. And as they get older and gain power, capacity, and skill-sets in advancing progress, the progress happens.” We have seen it before, within our own university. 

I remember this past spring, being caught in foot traffic going to McHugh, as a student-run protest for climate action and advocacy took place on the quad. I remember earlier in that same semester, the petitions and calls to reorient the curriculum of the School of Nursing, in response to an act of racial discrimination and verbal threats by two students. I sit here today having completed my final module of a free, one-credit course on anti-Black racism, and although we are nowhere near totality and reform regarding racial justice, or climate change, we as students have proven that our voices have, will and must be heard. 

Amanda Skinner left me with two impactful ideas, the first of which was that of a pendulum. U.S. citizens witnessed a swing towards racial equality when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. We then saw a swing in the opposite direction, in 2016, as 306 electoral votes meant that Donald Trump would be our next president, and with him came along the reversal of a majority of the progress on climate change and social justice made by the Obama administration. Now, the pendulum has swung once again, and with Newtonian theory in mind, it will swing even further than once before. As physics tells us, momentum does not come without mass or velocity, and the speed in which we tackle our university, state and country with the goal of institutional amelioration, and the sheer number of us that participate in such reform will result in momentum. 

The second idea Amanda left me with was a quote from Mariame Kaba, an author and advocate in dismantling the industrial prison complex, which reads: “Hope is a discipline.” Hope is practiced and cultivated, and now more than ever there is an opportunity to cultivate such ambitions. This extends to racial justice, the climate crisis and reproductive rights. Hope is regaining the fundamental agency one has over their own body. Hope is more than wishful thinking. It is the removal of constrictive reproductive policy, it is the end of misogynistic, racist and oppressive laws and most importantly, it is the momentum that will rise from our calls to action. 

I do believe that Connecticut turns to other states for guidance, and vice versa, and if there is any group more indicative of the stance of young people, it is those that attend ever-changing public universities such as UConn, and we must wield such power with a proclivity for equity and advancement. 

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