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The Legal Battle Over Abortion Is Coming to Campus

Toward a Higher Higher Education

By Julien Berman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julien Berman ’26 lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

College campuses are hubs of sexual activity. For the first time in their lives, many students have the freedom to mingle outside the panopticon of parental supervision. But lots of sex can lead to unwanted pregnancies. Almost 40 percent of women who seek abortions are under 24 years old.

Why, then, are we not urgently discussing the effects of Dobbs v. Jackson on campus life? Since the decision last year, 18 states have implemented abortion bans or made abortion care unavailable, and six more state legislatures have indicated plans to ban abortion. Some universities in these states have begun severing ties with Planned Parenthood and restricting access to birth control and other services. Now, students may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

In anti-abortion states, campus culture will inevitably become more hostile to reproductive rights. Whom do students talk to in the event of a broken condom or late period? What about students needing emergency procedures out of state?

Restrictive state laws incentivize residential advisors, proctors, and professors to remain silent and turn a blind eye to these life-changing decisions. Otherwise, particularly in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama, they could be sued for “aiding and abetting” an abortion — a legal standard that seems low enough to encompass almost every kind of support.

At first glance, institutions such as Harvard — situated in states with strong pro-access laws — seem far from the front lines of the war over reproductive rights. But legal scholars have suggested that these vicious laws could extend their tendrils across state lines. If universities aren’t careful, even those in blue states may no longer be safe spaces for abortion-seekers.

Colleges like Harvard need to stop sleepwalking and preempt the fight before it happens. Legal, financial, and moral support should be a priority.

To understand why, consider the following hypothetical: Sheila, an imaginary Harvard College student, travels home to Texas for winter break. She gets pregnant, and when she returns to campus, she realizes she needs an abortion. She contacts her Resident Dean who points her to campus resources and funding sources that can finance her procedure. Sheila gets the abortion at a local clinic in Massachusetts.

Turns out, the Resident Dean might be liable under Texas law – despite the fact that neither the advice nor the abortion took place in Texas. The statute is not by its terms limited to in-state actors.

New legislation could further clarify this vicious interpretation of Texas law. The Texas Freedom Caucus, a group of Texas state representatives, has declared plans to specifically target those who provide support or funding for out-of-state abortions. Prohibitions, they write, will apply “regardless of the law in the jurisdiction where the abortion occurs.”

To be sure, the legal case is by no means cut and dry. The Constitution protects the right to interstate travel, so it is unclear just how far laws can reach across state lines. But in any case, regardless of their success, suits implicating those involved in abortions are extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming hurdles. Moreover, the very threat of litigation can be both terrifying and psychologically burdensome, particularly for a young college student.

In addition, these suits sow seeds of distrust that will spread even to universities in pro-access states. After all, what’s to prevent Sheila’s roommate from suing her doctor and trying to collect the $10,000 bounty that Texas is offering?

Without proactive policy, even universities in pro-access states will be moved towards caution when providing abortion funding or other aid to students from red states. This could create a chilling effect that stunts conversations about reproductive health.

Ultimately, support networks may disappear as suspicion permeates the social fabric of campus life. Students — particularly women of color who are disproportionately likely to lack access to reproductive health services — will be forced to make serious decisions alone and isolated from any institutional assistance.

Thankfully, Massachusetts and other blue states have enacted “shield” laws designed to strengthen reproductive rights and protect against out-of-state subpoenas, summons, and judgements. But these laws themselves may be subject to constitutional challenges. And with hundreds of new anti-abortion bills, legal ambiguity will only increase.

Some might say that universities should steer clear from controversial political issues. But the looming threat is a health crisis, not a political one. Universities have a duty to support their students in need of reproductive healthcare.

Thus, in addition to providing funding to students for abortion-related services and travel, universities should partner with groups such as the Abortion Defense Network, connecting faculty and campus resources with trusted attorneys who can provide legal advice and representation. Also, universities should promise reimbursement for any affiliates facing legal fees for undergoing or supporting abortion. Hopefully, these measures will help prevent a culture of fear from consuming campus.

It is imperative that Harvard and peer institutions get ahead of the game and prepare for a legal war. The crisis is not only out there; it’s on our campus as well. Students seeking abortions should not have to live in uncertainty. It’s time to shift campus conversations to reflect this urgency, even in pro-access states.

Julien Berman ’26 lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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