While Bowdoin students don’t remember a time before the Roe v. Wade decision, local grandmothers certainly do. On Tuesday, Bowdoin Reproductive Justice Coalition brought Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights (GRR) to campus for a talk called “Life Before Roe v. Wade with Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights.” About 15 GRRs and roughly the same number of students gathered in the Baxter House living room for a conversation about activism and women’s health.
GRR is a group comprised primarily of women who grew up in a time with little or no access to birth control. Founded in Maine in 2013, the organization now has chapters in 46 states. Members aim to protect reproductive rights by lobbying against restrictive bills, hosting discussions and advocating for sex education.
Founder Julia G. Kahrl said the organization developed in response to increasingly limited access to the care guaranteed in reproductive rights legislation in the decades since Roe v. Wade.
“We knew that things [were] getting worse and that the anti-choicers were organizing more and more. They’ve been organized since 1973,” she said, “but they were doing much more work.”
Like many women, Kahrl was upset by and angry about the new restrictions on reproductive health care.
“We decided we wanted to change our anger into something positive,” she said.
Tuesday’s event focused on storytelling, with GRR members sharing their own experiences and those of friends. The speakers, who wore bright yellow pins that read “GRR,” began the talk with a short film before transitioning into a discussion with the students who attended.
Participants noted that the reproductive rights women have today are ones that women and girls died without before Roe v. Wade. They argued that the continued attacks on women’s healthcare pose a “slippery slope.”
In the past, GRR has done postcard signings and other smaller events at Bowdoin. This event, centered around conversation and storytelling, left a more powerful impression on students.
“I think we sort of forget what it was like,” said Eleanor Brakewood ’19, one of the co-leaders of Bowdoin Reproductive Justice Coalition. “These women know people who died getting back-alley abortions, and they can sort of give a more personal take on it. I think it’s important to not forget that that’s our history.”
Brakewood and co-leader Becky Berman ’20, both of whom work extensively with Planned Parenthood, said the talk was particularly relevant in the context of the current status of reproductive rights.
“After the election I think I definitely had that moment—I think a lot of people had this moment—where it was like all these things have been brewing in the country, but it feels like a reality check,” Brakewood said.
Brakewood said that now is a particularly important time for the talk because of Title X, which provides federal funding to health centers. Under a rule proposed by the Trump administration last week, a new domestic gag rule would be attached to Title X. Under this rule, a healthcare provider in the United States who performs abortions or refers patients to an abortion provider would lose all of its Title X funding.
Because tax dollars cannot go toward abortions, organizations such as Planned Parenthood rely on donor money to offer the procedures on a sliding scale to make them available to low-income women. If they can’t accept government healthcare, these women will have fewer options for care.
This is one of the reasons that Berman named the Bowdoin group the Reproductive Justice Coalition instead of the Reproductive Rights Coalition.
“Reproductive rights has been framed as a relatively well-off, white women’s struggle to legalize abortion,” Berman said. “The emphasis on justice is to put the focus on accessibility, things like these Title X changes. For someone who doesn’t face a lot of barriers to [health] care, [this] probably isn’t going to change their lives a lot, but for someone who’s low-income, who’s in a rural area, who has a lot of different intersectional identity factors that often bring discrimination, [this could be a big change].”
Berman hoped that the event would increase interest and involvement in reproductive justice.
“That’s definitely one thing that we’ve seen all seen over the past few years—that it’s been hard to get Bowdoin students involved actively in this fight,” she said.
Students who attended came away inspired.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Audrey Muscato ’20. “It was really interesting to hear their stories. It made it feel so much more real, and hearing them talk about what it was like before Roe v. Wade gave me a renewed sense of urgency for our rights.”