Originally written by Laura Kern and published by The Harvard Law Record on 4/19/23.
Following a sit-in at Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Hall last October, the Harvard Law School Alliance for Reproductive Justice (“ARJ”) gathered over 1,100 signatures from students, alumni, faculty and staff on a letter demanding increased academic options for students interested in reproductive justice work. The protest drew nationwide attention from publications like The Nation, motivated the passage of a resolution by the Cambridge City Council and even landed ARJ on the front page of The National Jurist.
The organization’s efforts have finally paid off, as students will have two new opportunities to perform reproductive justice clinical work this fall: under a new “area of focus” within the Health Law and Policy Clinic, and as part of an approved independent clinical placement with a local reproductive justice nonprofit.
“This is an incredible start to what we think will be an exciting commitment to repro clinical work here at HLS,” said ARJ president-elect Morgan Carmen JD ’24. “We are so grateful to the clinical deans for continuing these conversations with us.”
The development of this new focus area will be overseen by Professor Carmel Shachar—currently the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School—who will join HLS faculty as assistant clinical professor of law and faculty director of the Health Law and Policy Clinic starting in July.
“I really admire the advocacy of HLS students when it comes to building more reproductive justice opportunities into the curriculum,” said Prof. Shachar, noting that student voices have influenced her priorities for the future of the clinic. “This is a really important area of law and policy and the students are right to make it clear that they want to be active participants in this rapidly evolving landscape.”
Prof. Shachar said clinical students will have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge reproductive justice issues affecting patients and physicians in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“There is much work to be done on these issues and this work calls for collaboration from clinicians and experts with many areas of expertise,” said Erika Hanson, a current clinical instructor at the Health Law and Policy Clinic. “[Prof. Shachar’s] expertise will add immensely to our work for students in the clinic, classroom, and at HLS generally.”
Students will also be able to take advantage of a new independent clinical program with pre-approved placements at Reproductive Equity Now, a Boston nonprofit that aims to advance reproductive justice across New England and protect equitable access to safe, legal abortion care.
“We are pleased that beginning next year students will be able to participate in an independent clinical with pre-approved placements with Reproductive Equity Now,” said Assistant Dean for Clinical and Experiential Education and Pro Bono Programs Meredith Boak. “Additionally, students will be able to continue projects within several of our in-house clinics and student practice organizations.”
The road to change has been long. In the fall, ARJ asked the HLS administration for a public response to their letter and over 1,100 signatures by Dec. 1, 2022, but the administration did not issue one. Instead, they privately told ARJ leaders that their petition did not adequately show the “contours of demand” for a reproductive justice clinic. ARJ answered by sending out a more specific survey; this time, around 350 students expressed specific interest in a clinic, and 150 of those students said they would rank a reproductive justice clinic first during the clinical selection process.
“When we all come together as a student body and speak up, HLS is forced to listen,” said ARJ policy chair Sam Nagler JD ’23.
Encouraged by this strong support from the student body and frustrated by the administration’s lack of action, ARJ began drafting their own clinical proposal. Members interviewed coordinators of successful reproductive justice clinics at other schools and even reached out to potential donors to secure independent funding for the clinic. It was a grueling task, especially for students juggling classes, clinics, and job applications.
Carmen hopes the work ARJ has put into this proposal will offer some direction to the Health Law and Policy Clinic in developing this new focus area and, eventually, help craft a standalone, in-house reproductive justice clinic at HLS.
“I’m really excited about these options for students…but also, just because they’ve given us some things doesn’t mean we’re going to stop advocating for more in the longer term,” said Nagler. “These are great options that [administrators] were able to set up relatively quickly, but that doesn’t mean they’re the end goal.”
Establishing a clinic is only one of the organization’s demands. ARJ continues to push for a permanent curriculum of reproductive justice courses and a full-time, tenured professor with experience in the field.
“[With] visiting professors, we just don’t have the same kind of mentorship opportunities and support available as if there were a full-time faculty member teaching these classes,” said Nagler. “Registration at this school is hard enough without knowing when the next time a repro class is going to be offered,” she added. “We need something more sustainable.”
In the meantime, noted Dean Boak, the administration is considering other initiatives, including the introduction of an online roadmap of academic and experiential offerings, to help guide current and prospective students pursuing careers in the reproductive justice space.