By Lorentz Hansen, Copy Editor
Students, faculty, and several Vermont state representatives gathered on Wednesday, January 22, to mark the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. If/When/How, Vermont Law School’s student group focused on reproductive justice, hosted the symposium in conjunction with VLS and Women’s Law Society.
The event is the club’s third consecutive commemoration of the Roe v. Wade decision, which had also been held in the past. This year, If/When/How President Sarah Caron and Vice President Kendall Watts wanted to expand the event and provide a wider variety of perspectives.
“An angle I wanted to take this year was to really find a good variety of people to come and speak which included students, and all genders, because I think it’s really important that everyone be a part of the conversation,” Caron told The Forum. In addition to gender diversity, Watts and Caron wanted to showcase current approaches to reproductive justice from both state and national perspectives.
Representative Emilie Kornheiser, Vermont State Representative from Windham County, opened the panel by discussing recent successful and proposed legislation in Vermont. Last year the Vermont legislature passed H.57, which specifically preserves the right to abortion in the state of Vermont. The Legislature is also currently working to amend the Vermont Constitution to protect individual reproductive liberty and preserve the right to abortion.
The amendment, Proposition 5, was proposed in direct response to other states’ laws curtailing reproductive liberties and access to abortion. If the amendment passes, it would be the first of its kind in the country.
“We wanted to make sure that if something happens to Roe v. Wade, people in the state of Vermont will have a guaranteed right to reproductive healthcare,” said Rep. Kornheiser.
Representative Selene Colburn, Vermont State Representative for Chittenden County, discussed the tri-partisan effort to expand access to contraceptives across Vermont and other proposed legislation. Rep. Colburn also described a bill currently in the Vermont legislature that would make menstrual products more affordable by no longer taxing them as a “luxury” good, as they are currently taxed in the majority of states. Another proposed bill would provide menstrual products in women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms throughout Vermont middle and high schools.
Rep. Colburn also discussed a recently proposed bill that would decriminalize sex work in the state, which she believes is likely to pass. All of this action, she noted, is “part of decades and generations of work to do not just to protect [reproductive] rights, but reclaim them.”
VLS Professor Peter Teachout then spoke about the rights affected by Roe v. Wade and different constitutional approaches to protecting reproductive rights. Prof. Teachout explored approaches to reproductive freedoms using the equal protection clause, the right to privacy, and the value American society has placed on self-determination and the pursuit of happiness.
In addition to the Vermont legislation, Prof. Teachout discussed two significant cases for reproductive freedoms: Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which the court decided in 1992, and EMW Women’s Surgical Center v. Meier, which the Court declined certiorari in December. EMW v. Meier involves a challenge from the clinic and three of its doctors, who argue that the “informed consent” law Kentucky passed in 2017, violates the right to free speech by requiring doctors to convey an “antiabortion ideology.” With the recent ideological shift of the Supreme Court, Prof. Teachout noted, the questions of reproductive freedoms are being brought anew to the national stage in a steady stream, attempting to “munch at the roots of reproductive freedoms.”
Caron and Watts also wanted to incorporate student voices into the event, with a poem from Ricardo “Rico” Edwards and words from Julia MacDonald. Edwards, a first-year Juris Doctorate student at VLS and recent graduate of the school’s Master of Arts in Restorative Justice Program, read a poem compiled from friends’ stories and experiences, entitled “It Was a Woman.”
MacDonald, a 2L at VLS, discussed her advocacy work with Planned Parenthood of Vermont Action Fund, funded through the VLS Albert Schweitzer scholarship program.
Recent changes to abortion laws around the country have reignited broad interest in abortion rights. Looking forward at VLS, Caron and Watts are hoping to continue expanding this commemorative event, especially in light the high demand for tickets this year, which sold out in 30 minutes. Caron hopes to open the event to the public and allow many more people to attend in the future.
“It’s just such an important conversation that I think so many people would want to come and be a part of that,” said Caron.