In the second episode of the Bruno Brief’s series on sexual politics, we examine the landscape of reproductive rights on College Hill, past and present. We speak with Katy Pickens, Metro editor and Bruno Brief producer, about her recent reporting on the topic, diving into the early days of contraceptives and secret abortions all the way to the current discourse happening after the overturning of Roe V. Wade.
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To think that a couple, a few little pipsqueaks, 20-year-old pipsqueaks, could do this and help contribute to changing our society in such a radical way is something I’m very proud of.
Because they end up like abusing these women so much and really torturing them with statements like, you know, “You know how many women commit suicide after they do this” or “You’re never going to sleep the same way after this.”
Well, there was an ongoing feud with Rosemary Pierrel, who was dean of Pembroke. And this was one way to, as I look at it, now and then, of putting her on the spot. Yeah. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
The child's life is very important. And I think the bottom line is, in my opinion that … this can't be legal because it's the murder of a separate human life.
As we explored on last week’s episode, Brown has a storied history of nudity and sex on campus. Nowadays, students at Brown are pretty open about sex, but this wasn’t always the case. Talking about sex, contraception or abortion was extremely taboo — and in some cases, this taboo has never gone away.
This episode, we hear from academics, historians and students to understand reproductive justice, birth control and abortion at Brown. I’m Liliana Greyf, and you’re listening to The Bruno Brief.
Katy, when did discussion about reproductive healthcare and rights start on campus?
In 1965, Brown was thrust into the national spotlight for doing something which was then unthinkable: prescribing unmarried female students birth control pills.
The chaplain at Brown, the Episcopal chaplain, was John Crocker, who was an old friend of mine. And he calls me one day, and he says, “Oh, I’ve got a problem. I’ve got a graduate student who is over 21 and is going to be married after she gets her degree in June to another graduate student here at Brown. And they would like to get married now, but her parents will not have any thought of it at all until she gets her degree.”
That’s Roswell Johnson, who began as the director of Health Services in 1963.
He said, “They’re sleeping together quite frequently, and I’m worried and they’re worried that they’re going to have an unplanned pregnancy, and is there anything we can do about it through the health service?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, John. Why don’t you come over and talk about it?” So John came over, and we talked about it a bit, and finally we decided, yes, this was a perfectly reasonable couple for whom we would prescribe birth control pills, which were not all that common in ’63.
Roswell Johnson was prescribing very few — I think about one or two — prescriptions to unmarried Pembrokers. The news was broken by The Brown Daily Herald Sept. 28, 1965.
What’s interesting, though, is that the BDH didn’t have much of a problem with women being on the pill. In an editorial called “A Bitter Pill,” they pointed out that prescribing birth control was pretty antithetical to the parietal rules in place at the time which gave women strict curfews, dress codes and more. The Herald’s editors slammed Rosemary Pierrel, dean of Pembroke College.
Pierrel actually attended Pembroke herself, and when she was a student, conversations about sex and reproductive healthcare were extremely minimal.
There was at one time a part-time faculty member who taught physiology to women, but I think it was called hygiene, maybe. And probably, not unlike when I was a freshman, we had a course called hygiene, too. And you weren’t supposed to sit on men’s laps, things like that. I think that was supposed to be sex education. But, actually, there wasn’t anything of that sort in existence when I came. And as far as I know, with the exception of physical education and this course, which was a long time ago, I think early 1900s, I think, maybe even earlier, which was taught by a lady faculty member.
Education and discussion about sexual health on campus was, clearly, almost nonexistent during Pierrel’s time. In a fascinating clip from the Pembroke Center Oral Histories, she recounts learning about a rule that forbade married students from living in the dormitories.
She asked if she could live in the dorm. I said, “Oh, sure, if there’s room. I mean, what’s the problem?” But I guess the theory was that married women knew things that virgins shouldn’t know, and since all the girls were virgins, we’d better not have them contaminate.
It wasn’t until Johnson began prescribing the pill that real conversation about sex on campus began.
I don’t think that the students ever had any perception of the personal and professional risk to which I was subjecting myself by doing this. I wasn’t doing it to be a hero. I didn’t mean that at all. I was doing it to try to prevent pregnancies that were unwanted, were tragic, destructive to both the man and the woman and something that I wanted to do something about.
Nationally, Brown came under fire because of these prescriptions. But in the years to come, students on campus only continued to push the envelope and advocate for different reproductive rights.
A band of women came together in 1970 to create what would become an institution for feminist organizing on campus — Women of Brown United. Here’s Mimi Pichey, a leader of the club.
The most important, in my opinion, that took place during that period was we pulled together women to discuss abortion and decided out of that first meeting to found something called the Rhode Island Coalition to Repeal Abortion Laws. The first meeting I attended along with, there about ten people there, was an extraordinary meeting. I will always remember it. We went around the room and talked about our experience with abortion. And there were about ten of us, and out of that ten, three had had an abortion. And each one told her story, and for many of these women, it was the first time they had ever told anybody else, outside of perhaps their partner, the story of what had happened.
Abortion was an extremely taboo subject and was inaccessible to many students. It was something that would happen, but people didn’t really talk about it.
It’s true, abortion has always been available to people who have money. In the old days, people … women used to fly to Sweden.
Mimi and members of women of Brown United founded the Rhode Island Coalition to Repeal Abortion Laws in February 1971, which brought together organizations across the state in filing a class action lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island and its strict abortion laws. Mind you, this is about two years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, which overturned restrictive abortion laws nationally in January 1973. On Feb. 9, 1973, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled on the case brought forth by the coalition Mimi and her fellow Brown students started and found that the state's abortion laws were unconstitutional.
That was Felicia Salinas-Moniz, current director of the Sarah Doyle Center.
WBU’s organizing around abortion rights was pretty crucial. Rhode Island has a strong Catholic history, and the state legislature had put in place strict abortion laws. Ultimately they were struck down, in part because of activism driven by WBU and the broader community.
I am happy to say, proud to say that I helped file the suit in Rhode Island, and I helped file the suit in California when I was with Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition in early 1972.
In 1985, the group also established the women’s escort service, who volunteered as clinic escorts for people seeking abortions at the Women’s Medical Center of Rhode Island. Here’s Sarah Fast, one of the escorts, from a 1988 interview in the Pembroke Center Oral History Project.
And at one point I was just really, you know, I had escorted a lot before, but never alone, and I just was really freaking out, and I didn’t think I could take it anymore. And I went inside, and I was speaking to one of the nurses there and saying, ‘Hey, you know, I just need a couple words of encouragement because I’m having a hard time dealing today alone.’ And she told me that they have, like, therapy with these women after they have the abortion, and they talk about the experience, and she told me that, without exception, the women say how relieved and happy they were to have someone bring them in, to have the escorters there and how it was a comfort to them.
Activism at Brown and around the country helped protect reproductive rights during the 20th century. Activists pushed to protect the right to have abortions and expand contraception. This past June, nearly 50 years after Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, it was overturned. How did that happen?
So, I talked a bit with Dr. Sarah Willliams, visiting assistant professor of anthropology and gender studies, about that very topic.
Within just a few years of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1977, the Hyde Amendment was passed, which blocked federal funding for abortion care, which meant that almost immediately abortion became a privilege of class, the ability to pay for an abortion. So it's not a right, and it was never elucidated as a right by the government. It was what some scholars have called a negative right — you don't have the right to have an abortion, you have the right for the government not to intervene in that decision. And that's a really crucial and dangerous difference here. Because rather than a positive right, rather than a law that says, every person who's capable of getting pregnant has an inalienable right to abort that pregnancy, we rather have this sort of hands off, we have no obligation to protect the access to an abortion, we have no obligation to make it free or financially accessible, we just won't directly interfere.
So with the shaky foundation for Roe, activists and academics were not surprised when the Supreme Court overturned the decision last summer.
How have people on campus responded to the overturning of Roe?
We're definitely thrilled about the decision. But I think it's probably actually got a little bit the opposite way for most of Brown students.
That was Kyle Nunes, the vice president of the Students for Life club which advocates against abortion. Nunes says that the club plans to be more present on campus this year.
One thing we have tried is to put up fliers around campus, just like general interest forms, and they mostly get taken down within 24 hours. So that can be tough. But I think that, in my mind, the next step is, “Okay, we have to actually be present on campus and be okay with the fact that some people aren't gonna like that.”
He also emphasized that they hope to focus more on supporting mothers in their activism, in addition to advocating against the practice of abortion.
I also talked with Hannah Fernandez, a member of the executive board for Planned Parenthood Advocates at Brown. Needless to say, she had a different reaction to the Dobbs decision.
Even I had to be like, “I can't do this right now.” And I set social media timer limits on my phone for minimal amounts per day so that I wasn't tempted to go on it because I knew I wouldn't be able to handle that much content about the Dobbs decision.
She also emphasized that because of Dobbs, there is a lot of movement locally to codify different reproductive rights. The club works to connect people with clinic volunteering opportunities and advocates broadly for legislation which supports access to reproductive rights, including abortion.
In the context of activism on either side of the aisle, I also think it’s important to remember that although it may not be openly discussed on campus very often, students at Brown have, and will be, directly impacted by this decision.
Here’s Stella Olken-Hunt, a University News editor for The Herald. Last semester, she did reporting on the experiences of students who have had abortions.
I interviewed students and alumni who had gone through an abortion when they were on campus. This was in the wake of the documents that were leaked that indicated that the Supreme Court could be overturning Roe v. Wade.
All their experiences were really different, but they all generally reported just the difficulties mentally, emotionally, physically with going through abortion, even if there aren’t barriers in Rhode Island to receiving an abortion because Rhode Island is one of the states where it is easier to do it than others.
At least one I know of specifically reported difficulties with schoolwork and maintaining that going through the experience and getting understanding from the deans and professors. That was sometimes a little bit difficult, especially if you are not feeling comfortable to disclose exactly what’s happening, which is really understandable.
Someone in the article mentioned that people don’t really think of it as something that happens on campus. It’s kind of detached in a way, you are like, “Oh yeah people get abortions, but not here.”
What do people expect for the future? What do they want?
Professor Williams explained that the reproductive justice movement takes a broad, social justice-focused and intersectional approach to these issues.
The right to an abortion is only one reproductive right. And in order to have all of our reproductive rights, we need to fight for all of them, so that they stand together. So the reproductive justice movement is a really great model of what coalitions look like that center the needs of women of color, in particular, as well as queer, trans, non-binary folks.
Jocelyn Foye, co-founder and executive director of The Womxn Project, has been working to lobby the Rhode Island legislature to extend equitable access to abortions.
One thing for people to understand is that, abortion in a lot of cases to us represents so much more. It's not just about a medical procedure, it's about bodily safety and dignity and people being able to choose when they're ready to have a family and why.
While Rhode Island codified the right to abortion in 2019, groups like The Womxn Project, Planned Parenthood Advocates and more are really pushing for the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act to be passed. This law would promote the financial accessibility of abortion throughout the state.
People always try to say that public health is not political and medicine is separate from politics. But at this point in the way that things have devolved, everything is politics. Public health is politics.
So people keep on working and have embraced a wider view of the issue.
We can't give up on people. We can't give up on women, we can't give up on people with wombs. It used to seem impossible to get Roe passed, at one point in time. All of the rights that we have, at one point in time are considered to be impossible.
This has been The Bruno Brief. Tune in next week to hear about controversy on College Hill after a rogue, avant-garde photo exhibition by RISD students that some authorities — including Providence Police — deemed indecent.
This episode was produced by Elysee Barakett, Caitlin Carpenter, Finn Kirkpatrick, Katy Pickens, Jacob Smollen and me, Liliana Greyf. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back next week.
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