“My Body, My Choice”: The Campus Abortion Debate in Post-Roe America | Williams, Herrera, Anderson


In this case study, we explore the tensions of campus programming, supervision, and student activism through an issue of polarity. Grounded in a disagreement within a campus identity center, we consider how state and federal law, institutional policy and practice, campus reputation, and student activism impact and influence campus programming.

Keywords: Supervision, Abortion, Women’s Issues, Activism on Campus

Primary Characters 

Denise (She/Her): Is a white woman from the U.S. Southeast. She spent all her formal education as well as her student affairs practitioner training in the region and was highly recruited to join Baldwin University as the Executive Director of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) five years ago. She also serves as the interim Vice President of Student Affairs. She oversees the entire WRC directly through Rebecca, and vocally describes herself as an ally to women from other marginalized communities.

Rebecca (She/Her): Is an Indigenous-American woman from a federally recognized tribe who spent all her life in the U.S. Midwest. She serves as the Associate Director of Programming and Engagement in the Women’s Resource Center (WRC) and is an alumna of Baldwin. She oversees all entry-level WRC staff and reports directly to Denise.

Alex (She/Her): Is a white woman, dual national citizen of Ireland and the United States. She is a junior dual major in sociology and social work. Back in Ireland, Alex’s family was instrumental in organizing for the successful passage of Irelands’ 2018 Health Act. She is president of the Women’s Empowerment student organization and reports to Brenda for all official student group needs.

Brenda (she/her): is a Afro-Latina trans woman, continuing generation college graduate, from a wealthy, politically engaged family in California. She serves as a Senior Program Coordinator in the WRC and reports to Rebecca. 

You, the reader: a brand new Program Coordinator in the WRC. You work alongside Brenda and directly report to Rebecca.

Campus Context

Baldwin University (BU) is a four-year, mid-sized, regional comprehensive public university in the Midwest. There are 8,500 students enrolled at Baldwin and the campus is primarily residential and 90% of the enrolled students are at the undergraduate level. Baldwin’s recent self-reported campus data suggests the student body is 30% racially diverse with students identifying as the following: Two or more Races: 10%; Asian: 7%; Non-White Hispanic: 6%; Black: 4%; Indigenous/ Native: 3%; White: 65%; and other/ not disclosed: 5%. The same campus data revealed 64% of the students identify as women, 31% as men, 1% as non-binary, and 4% prefer not to disclose/other. The university is in a state where an abortion trigger law went into effect with the Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022. In addition to the immediate overturn of abortion due to an old trigger law, the state has required that all discussion of abortion include “both sides” (understood as Liberal and Conservative).

Case Scenario 

You (the reader) are a brand-new Programming Coordinator (PC) in the WRC at BU. On your first day in the office, you shadow the existing senior programing coordinator (SPC) Brenda. That day, one of the center’s highly engaged students, Alex, wrote to Brenda suggesting a programming idea to support the reproductive rights of women and other people who can give birth. Thus far, Brenda explained to you, PC’s and SPC’s are expected to run all programming ideas by your (shared) supervisor Rebecca (Associate Director) for her approval. The proposed program is as follows from Alex’s campus programming proposal:

  • Program Name: The Dangers of Roe v Wade Being Overturned
  • Purpose: The purpose of the program is to educate women on how the overturning of Roe vs. Wade impacts their bodily autonomy and how to engage in activism for helping women access alternatives as well as mobilize a Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign in the next election cycle to combat anti-abortion legislators in office.
  • Description: During the program students will hear from faculty who are experts in women’s issues, social justice activism and protests as activist power. The event is being put on by Baldwin’s Women’s Empowerment student organization.
  • Topics:
    • Reviewing and comparing state laws
    • Discussing how the different state laws impact women
    • Identifying alternative resource agencies for bodily autonomous healthcare resourcing and support
    • Sharing information on how students can be activists regarding abortion in their current state (where Baldwin is located) and in their home states.

Brenda, your colleague, relays the program ideas and topics to your supervisor, Rebecca, who is immediately concerned given the local and national tensions on the subject. You listen along to their unstructured chat about the program as Rebecca mentions she would prefer to stay away from this kind of programming unless students agree to follow the new state law. The law, Rebecca turns to explain, requires all WRC programs to include both sides about abortion (liberal and conservative views).

You watch as Brenda shares the news from your supervisor with Alex. She decided to call Alex rather than writing back by email, and Alex expresses deep disappointment by the proposed program changes because the idea of “both sides” would deeply undermine the realities of what abortion means and how it functions in a post-Roe America. Brenda explains that she feels her hands are tied. While Brenda takes you around the student center to meet staff in the other identity centers, you both learn that Alex decided to go around the WRC to put on the event. Alex gained traction on the programming issue from campus faculty members who had already voiced support for the program prior to the WRC proposal submission.

Outraged because they feel the new direction of the program is a copout for the institution to avoid taking a stance on women’s issues, the campus faculty wrote a scathing email to Brenda and your boss Rebecca. The campus newspaper editorial team decided to publish this email with a bold headline reading: “Women’s Resource Center? OR Wayward Right-winged Center?” The headline is then picked up by the local paper and Denise (the WRC executive director) is called to meet with the University President and the media relations team. While you and Brenda work to brainstorm next steps with your supervisor, the three of you learn that the faculty decided to forge ahead with their support of Alex. A social media post reveals the program will continue without support of the WRC the next day.

At the close of your first day, your supervisor Rebecca (Associate Director) immediately calls both you and Brenda to their office to decide a plan of action upon learning the President has summoned and verbally reprimanded Denise for failing to control this situation. After the meeting as Brenda walks you to your car, she reveals that Alex invited her to the program since Alex knew that she (Brenda) believed in the program as designed. Because the event is taking place without WRC and Brenda is in support of the student’s idea, she explains to you, the new WRC program coordinator (the reader) that she plans to attend the program.

Unfortunately, as word gets out about the program more “pro-life” students begin to act. The next day, protests against the abortion program begin in the hours leading up to and during the scheduled event time. As the event time draws closer, you can hear the chants from your new office from anti-abortion protestors declaring they deserve to be heard. The students and faculty responsible for putting on the program write online that they no longer feel safe to continue and cancel the event at the last minute. You learn via text from Brenda that as she was arriving to the student center where the event was to be held, she instead decided to turn around to go home. The text reads: “Just got here & IDK if you plan to attend, but don’t! It’s chaos and I’m leaving.”

The next day, Denise (WRC Executive Director) and the BU campus President put out the following joint statement regarding the event:

Yesterday, several students and faculty came together to put on an event called “The Dangers of Roe v. Wade Being Overturned.” Unfortunately, the event organizers did not go through the proper channels to get the event approved and were met with a group of students in protest of the event topic. Baldwin University supports freedom of speech and diversity in thought. Therefore, we ask all event organizers to share all sides of current events or topics. At BU, we understand that students with different political, religious, and individual values will view the overturn of Roe v. Wade differently. We welcome discourse about these topics but require that any event go through the proper procedures to ensure the safety of presenters and attendees.

Not long after the release of the joint statement by Denise and the BU President, numerous student body members begin to express their thoughts via social media. A viral twitter hashtag and gif begins to circulate rapidly. The hashtag (#BUmeanBodiesUnacknowledged) and a gif of the BU President high-fiving President Trump while shouting “5-4!”

Later that afternoon, you overhear Rebecca pulling Brenda aside outside your office. Rebecca then admits to Brenda that she did not agree with the joint statement because as an alumna, she struggles with how students are supported in their activism. She explains that because of the legal restrictions and the inflexible program registration protocols, BU is failing to honor the commitment to students as leaders and change agents that it ascribes to in the institutional mission, vision, and values statements. However, Denise calls you, Rebecca, and Brenda to her office and demands to know what the three of you knew about the program, how long, and why you failed to report the usurping of the center’s programming oversight. In that meeting, you learn Denise was alerted to the staffs’ prior knowledge of the event after receiving a snapshot of Brenda’s twitter timeline retweeting a friend’s post. The friends’ post in question criticized the anti-abortion protestors as well as the institution’s failure to augment the voices of students advocating for respect of bodily autonomy.

Rebecca resigns in protest explaining that it has long been time for her to leave BU, because it is no longer the BU she recognizes. This leaves you and Brenda with no buffer between her role and the WRC ED while negotiating the political fallout from the event. Given you are brand new to the office, you leave your second day at work disheartened, frustrated, and concerned about preparing for a check-in meeting the next day with your interim supervisor Denise.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify and describe the supervisory tensions in this matter between Denise, Rebecca, Brenda, Alex, and yourself.
  2. How does campus activism and protest impact student affairs practice and institutional response in this matter?
  3. How, if at all, does the joint statement align with the state law and/or support or deny student’s first amendment rights? Why does this matter?
  4. Considering the social identities and workplace positioning of the affected WRC staff, how might current students, alumni, and stakeholders respond to Rebecca’s immediate resignation? What, if anything, might this mean for how we consider identity and positioning in student affairs practice?

Author Bios 

Brittany M. Williams (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration at the University of Vermont. She primarily studies career development and supervision issues, social class, and the nexus of education and health. Williams centers Black women and girls in her scholarship.

Vanessa Kay Herrera (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate at St. Cloud State University. She also serves as the Assistant Director of Student Resources & Support at the College of the Florida Keys.

Wachen Bedell Anderson (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate at St. Cloud State University. She also serves as a member of the Administrative Service Faculty at the College of Nursing and Health Science at Metropolitan State University.