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Legal and Bioethics Experts Discuss Future of Abortion at Law School Panel

Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics hosted a panel on the future of abortion Thursday.
Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics hosted a panel on the future of abortion Thursday. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Alexander I. Fung and Waseem S. Nabulsi, Contributing Writers

Legal and bioethics experts convened to discuss the future of abortion amid efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade at a virtual panel held by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School on Wednesday.

The event was moderated by Katherine Kraschel, the Executive Director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School, and featured panelists Mary Ziegler ’04, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law; Louise Perkins King, an associate professor and a member of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School; and I. Glenn Cohen, the faculty director of the Petrie-Flom Center.

The panelists began with a discussion of current legislaitive initiatives to roll back abortion access. The speakers first touched on Texas’s SB-8 bill, often referred to as a “heartbeat bill,” which prohibits abortions after doctors can find a fetal heartbeat on an ultrasound, generally around the sixth week of a pregnancy.

The law, which went into effect in September, prevents state officials from actually enforcing the policy, an attempt to make it difficult to challenge in court under the constitutional precedent of Roe v. Wade. Instead, the law empowers private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who assists in an abortion.

King said that such restrictions on abortion access have stymied providers hoping to provide care.

“Providers are frightened, and, again, deeply frustrated by their inability to provide what we consider to be essential care within obstetrics and gynecology,” King said. “Currently, everyone within the American College of OBGYN would consider it an essential care to provide abortions.”

Ziegler said that the Texas bill diverged from past compromises made by the anti-abortion movement and reflects a greater push towards individual rollbacks on abortion access, as opposed to a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortions.

“The six-week bans of the kind that SB-8 represents are actually seen as compromises now within the right to life for [the] anti-abortion movement, because they don’t go all the way to fertilization,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said the current national dialogue on abortion is reflective of a shift in the focus of the anti-abortion movement towards a discussion of fetal rights, as opposed to women’s rights.

“[The argument] that abortion hurts women, as women, and that there is no tension between eliminating the right to choose abortion and equality for women, because abortion itself ultimately damages women’s psyches and bodies, that argument is falling away,” Ziegler said.

Panelists also discussed the pending Supreme Court case of Dobbs v. Jackson. The court is set to decide on the constitutionality of a Mississippi state law banning abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, a ruling that advocates believe will have implications for whether Roe v. Wade is upheld.

Cohen cautioned that the SCOTUS outcome could enable further restrictions on abortion in states across the country, resulting in a “checkerboard state of play” for abortion legislation.

“We'll have places like Massachusetts that will basically permit abortions till quite late. And states like Texas and Louisiana that will prohibit just about any abortion they’re constitutionally allowed to do so,” Cohen said.

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