Defending Your Rights? Study Finds Few Law Schools Offer Training in Reproductive Justice

Advocates working in the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements know that training is important.  Whatever medium, forum, or discipline we work in, we know there are important skills and lessons to be learned, enabling us to do our work more thoughtfully and effectively.  Sometimes we face challenges obtaining the training and mentorship we need and, as in the case of abortion training in residency programs, advocates must work to create or improve access to skill-building opportunities.  In other contexts we may not even realize where the gaps in training are until we are challenged to step back and assess the landscape from a broader perspective.  Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) is committed to making sure that law students understand those gaps while in law school and that they ultimately secure the tools necessary to fill them.

For those of us dedicated to using legal tools in the pursuit of reproductive justice for all people, the formal training available in law schools is limited.  In a new study, LSRJ has for the first time surveyed reproductive rights and justice course offerings at all American Bar Association-approved law schools in the U.S. for the last seven years.  The results, while perhaps not surprising to anyone who has been involved with legal education, paint a nevertheless troubling picture for the vast majority of law students who lack any opportunity to study reproductive rights legal issues formally during their three years in law school. 

Specifically, LSRJ found that only 18 percent of law schools have offered a reproductive rights law course sometime during the last seven years.  In real numbers, that amounts to 37 separate courses and instructor-led reading groups, which were taught at 32 different law schools located in 17 states (including the District of Columbia). 

Furthermore, 49 percent of those courses have been taught only once.  While it is true that some law students are able to acquire relevant training for careers in reproductive rights and justice through advanced constitutional law courses, clinical opportunities, and electives on law & sexuality or assisted reproductive technology & bioethics, the complete dearth of reproductive rights law courses at over 80 percent of law schools leaves a significant gap in training for future legal advocates.  The message is clear—most law schools still do not see reproductive rights as a legitimate subject worthy of the stand-alone classes that are taught regularly for other legal specialties.

Both the format and substance of legal education have been slow to evolve since Dean Christopher Langdell first introduced the case method at Harvard Law School in the late 19th century.  Lawyers long out of school still cringe at memories of being cold-called in class—and yet the Socratic method persists.  Although developments like the clinical movement, co-education, and critical legal studies have broadened the accepted wisdom about what contributes to quality training for future lawyers, the standard core curriculum— contracts, property, torts, criminal law, and civil procedure—remains largely unchanged from the curriculum instituted over 100 years ago by Langdell. 

Despite the fact that law school graduates proceed not only to private practice but also become public interest lawyers, policymakers, judges, and law professors, many law schools have been slow to add specialized courses in certain areas, including reproductive rights.  This must change.  Such specialized courses are important, providing a valuable opportunity to amass more substantive knowledge in one’s chosen field.  They also give law students a chance to delve deeper into the cutting-edge issues and theoretical challenges they will face throughout their legal careers—an opportunity currently unavailable to the majority of future reproductive rights legal advocates.

There is, however, some reassuring news for those who believe that reproductive rights and justice have an important place within mainstream legal education.  The LSRJ course survey results suggest that law schools may slowly be heeding the call for more repro-related course offerings:  Forty-one percent of all known courses were first introduced during the last two years, and more than one-third of known classes have resulted from on-campus advocacy by LSRJ chapters.  

The fact that law students themselves are responsible for such a significant number of existing reproductive rights law courses not only reflects the dedication and passion of RJ-oriented law students, but also speaks to the importance of student involvement in efforts to change legal education.  Student-led advocacy for new courses puts those most affected at the center of legal education reform efforts, while simultaneously helping students hone their skills in a form of on-the-ground advocacy training.

LSRJ is committed to educating, organizing, and supporting law students to ensure that a new generation of advocates will be prepared to right reproductive wrongs and realize reproductive rights as basic civil and human rights.  From its early days, LSRJ has supported law student campaigns for new reproductive rights law and justice courses, believing such efforts to constitute important steps in a larger movement towards the de-marginalization of reproductive rights law within the legal academy and law practice.  In this process LSRJ encourages law students to develop relationships with supportive faculty members, some of whom have long been incorporating reproductive justice issues into other courses they teach, using such opportunities to expose all law students—including those who would never enroll in a reproductive rights law course—to important RJ topics and themes.

While in some ways the course survey results simply confirm what was already known anecdotally about the limited reproductive rights law coverage in law school course catalogs, it does provide new and more detailed information about the current landscape of training for law students.  It highlights the dedicated, forward-thinking professors who already teach reproductive rights and justice courses—for a number of years, in some cases—and enables us to celebrate their contributions to the training of new leaders in the field.  The broad analysis should be interesting and useful both for law school administrators and faculty who care about providing quality legal education and for non-lawyer colleagues and allies within the reproductive rights and justice movements.  Most importantly, the course survey serves as a call to action for law students to mount new course campaigns at their law schools and to secure for themselves the educational opportunities that will prepare them to be effective reproductive rights and justice advocates.  Law school is an investment, and an expensive one at that.  With our support, it’s time for law students to demand the kind of relevant training in reproductive rights law they deserve. 

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  • lhewko

    Thanks Liz for drawing to light the fact that we as law students can be active participants in shaping our law school education! Thanks to support from LSRJ, I am currently taking UW’s first ever RJ course taught by the brilliant and compassionate Sara Ainsworth from Legal Voice. Her course goes beyond the traditional RRs cases that focus solely on abortion and contraception. Her course asks us to analyze RJ legal issues as part of the broader RJ movement, which strives to reduce reproductive oppression in marginalized communities, a movement led by those most affected. As lawyers, it is hard to see where we should fit in that movement. By learning the limits of our current constitutional doctrine, we can begin to look at our laws and how they affect individuals–a necessary critique if we hope to address the needs of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. This is one of few courses in law school where I believe I am learning how to use the law as a tool to create social change! I hope all students will have the opportunity to take such a course before they graduate!

  • kloewentheil

    Kudos to LSRJ and Liz for this report. I can definitely attest that in my experience, students have to advocate for the courses they want! Law schools are very conservative institutions, and when you factor in the disdain that many more “elite” schools have for anything that seems remotely related to “practice,” and the general assumption that reproductive rights is a “women’s issue” and that “women’s issues” are niche issues, it’s not surprising (tho lamentable) that many schools don’t offer RJ-related courses. But with a little organization and planning students have a good shot and getting RJ-related courses on their campuses, and it’s great that LSRJ is there to help!

  • rinarmstrong

    Many thanks to Liz and LSRJ for highlighting the need for increased training opportunities and course offerings for aspiring reproductive justice attorneys.  We all need the next generation of legal advocates, policy makers and judges to be prepared to defend and advance laws and policies that work to ensure that women have full and meaningful control over their own reproductive destinies and decisions about when, whether and how to have and raise children.  LSRJ’s role has never been clearer!  Thanks for supporting and encouraging law students around the country to engage in this work – my own law school experience would have been woefully different without this organization. 

  • dcosta

    I recently attended a brilliant, innovative academic forum on comparative health policy, where legal scholars from around the world convened to share insights about health systems. While the contrast between nations that view health as a human right or an indelible social good was striking, what really struck me was how difficult it was to get issues of women’s health and reproductive rights on the table. All but one of the speakers was male, and one student’s bold attempt to suggest giving some attention to these issues was shot down. It felt as if women around the world were being told they don’t matter – even though we know how important women’s health and reproductive rights are to developing equitable and sustainable societies. Liz’s commentary on the difficulty of mainstreaming reproductive rights in legal education reinforces the idea that it is up to dedicated students and their supporters and allies in the field to get the world to pay attention. These issues matter to all of us, and LSRJ is absolutely essential in supporting student efforts. The challenge of getting reproductive rights on the table in legal education, the legal profession, and into public awareness more broadly is one we cannot afford to lose, and as a law student I could not be more grateful for the hard work of my peers within the LSRJ community.

  • ashleyg

    Liz, thank you and LSRJ so much for your work on this important project. Not only is the report a call to action, but it’s enabling strategic, informed, effective action. I’m encouraged to hear that RJ activists have been particularly successful in the past two years, and with the support of LSRJ, there’s good reason to believe the trend line will continue.