When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade in 1973, fewer than half of college students were women. Today, women make up 57 percent of college students—a 30 percent increase over five decades.Since Roe, more women have risen to leadership in business, education, government, law, medicine, and politics. Our nation is stronger because the court granted women new freedom and independence by acknowledging a right of privacy that conferred control over their own bodies.
Today, 44 percent of working-age adults have college degrees. Nearly half are women, and this percentage is growing. In three-and-a-half decades of working with others across the political spectrum to create a better-educated country, I have witnessed this transformation.
Last week, a different U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe. With the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, many states will restrict women’s access to this form of medical care in all circumstances, creating a patchwork of access, with the possibility of a national ban to follow regardless of whether mothers’ lives are endangered, or the pregnancies arose from rape and incest.
Initially, women will have to travel to states where abortion is legal, if that is even financially, logistically, or medically feasible. The new abortion restrictions, including criminal penalties, will devastate women from low-income families, curbing their ability to pursue education. Because of historic levels of inequality in the United States, many of the women harmed will be Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Native American.
This sudden reversal of human rights is antithetical to the work Lumina Foundation supports to foster a learning system beyond high school that expands economic opportunity and social mobility. In addition to positioning people for success in an increasingly global economy, we believe education after high school also can create better-informed citizens. Americans widely agree we should afford everyone this kind of educational opportunity—even as opportunity today remains unequally distributed. The harsh consequences of last week’s court ruling will only worsen these divides.
No matter where people live, how much money they have, whatever their gender, sexual identity, or racial background, they should be able to secure better lives through a college education. Instead, the court has increased the likelihood that women in certain states will face significant obstacles to seeking educational opportunity. Moreover, we will increase the nation’s shamefully high maternal mortality rates, further divide Americans, and weaken the country’s ability to deal with future challenges.
Admittedly, people’s beliefs about abortion are complicated, and this is true among people of diverse faith traditions. However, most Americans support the right of women to independently make decisions about their reproductive health in consultation with medical professionals. As the dissenting judges in this case wrote: “Respecting a woman as an autonomous being, and granting her full equality, mean(s) giving her substantial choice over this most personal and most consequential of all life decisions.”
What happened last week was a disturbing reversal by the court of a right thought fundamental in favor of a privileged minority imposing its views in a nation founded on the principle that each of us has equal protection under the law.
The court will not have the final word.
The nation’s voters will cast ballots and elect state and federal officials who determine whether pregnant students can make choices of conscience. Moreover, I remain committed to ensuring that Lumina will support organizations that work with these students, within what the law permits, as women from all racial and ethnic backgrounds work through yet another systemic barrier to their educational advancement.
We are a fractured nation. The future of our democratic republic relies on ensuring basic human rights and freedoms. At Lumina, we pledge to revitalize American higher education in ways that directly address threats to prosperity and cherished freedoms.
We make this commitment because the belief that education leads to better jobs does not solely drive our work. A better-educated population—reflecting the racial, cultural, and social diversity that have been hallmarks of the American experiment for more than two centuries—serves our shared interests and ideals as Americans.