By Gwyneth K. Shaw
Jade Williams ’24 grew up in Texas, and came to intimately understand the contentious legal and political battleground for reproductive autonomy long before the now-infamous S.B. 8 trained the eyes of the nation on the state.
“When I chose to come to Berkeley Law, part of my decision was based on learning the law in a space that upholds the importance of women’s liberation,” she says.
She quickly became involved with the Reproductive Justice Project (RJP) — one of more than 40 Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects at the school — to find community with others committed to championing the importance of bodily autonomy, choice, and health for people from all walks of life.
The group does project-based work with organizations that advance reproductive rights, including in the policy and litigation spheres, and Williams is now one of the co-leaders.
Her entire 1L year was infused with speculation over the future of abortion rights. S.B. 8, which not only outlawed abortion after the detection of fetal cardiac activity but essentially created a bounty system allowing citizens to sue anyone who performs or aids in an abortion for $10,000, roiled the debate in the late summer and fall of 2021.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, about a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks of gestation. In May 2022, the famously circumspect court sprung a leak, and a draft opinion sweeping away the right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade hit like a lightning bolt during Berkeley Law’s final exams.
Williams, who spent the year studying Supreme Court decisions and knew the shifting demographics of the justices well, was hardly surprised when the court released its final decision in June. But, she says, thinking about what it could mean and having it happen are very different things.
“I found out riding the subway in New York City to my summer job, and the fall in energy in the city was palpable,” she says. “I felt numb realizing the weight of what this would mean for the women of this country, and I felt deep hurt for our grandmothers who had believed this fight was won for those that would come after.
“I think it brought both myself and our RJP members tremendous sadness. That sadness persists, but we are turning this feeling into how we can be most helpful in utilizing our education to move forward.”
Camille Tabari ’24 had a similar reaction, in sharp contrast with her friends who aren’t in law school. Many of them reached out to her when the opinion was leaked, asking if the court could really overturn Roe, looking for any reassurance.
“I wish I could have been that someone,” she says.
Disappointed but determined
Tabari, who worked with RJP during her 1L year, is clear-eyed about what the near future holds. But student-led groups like this one are important not just for the work they do, but the signal they send, she says.
“They also show that we care, that we’re not giving up. They’re important to help people channel their outrage and anger into action,” Tabari says. “And maybe those people leave Berkeley and go on to politics or activism or maybe they’re already there; regardless, organizations like RJP keep the fire alive. And most importantly, I think it helps maintain a sense of hope.
“As long as we keep doing something, there is hope that something can be done.”
And Tabari feels that way, even if the flashes are tiny. After the Dobbs decision came out, she saw a close friend — who, like Tabari, grew up Catholic — and was reminded of people’s capacity to evolve in their opinions. The friend credits Tabari in part for her change of heart about abortion rights, and that kind of experience is what shines through, even with her disappointment in the court and politicians in general for where the reproductive rights battle stands.
“My contempt for them can’t save or protect anyone,” Tabari says. “I have so much admiration for the people who are tirelessly working to ensure access to abortion isn’t lost entirely. They’re the ones who aren’t just living through a historic moment, but making history. And while we probably won’t be able to reverse this decision anytime soon, the activists out there minimizing harm and fighting for our rights are making sure that this decision isn’t permanent. History doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.”
Williams, and the other students in RJP, are committed to pushing the pendulum back the other way. After growing up with the right to personal choice sold as a guarantee, she says, the history lesson she’s learned from Dobbs is that “when it comes to judicial power, no fundamental right is truly safe from being revoked.”
Berkeley Law Pro Bono Program Director Deborah Schlosberg notes that Williams and Haleigh Cotton ’24 signed up to co-lead RJP before the Dobbs decision came down, knowing full well the challenges their partner organizations might be facing.
“Haleigh and Jade have been hard at work this summer preparing for a year of hard work and resistance,” Schlosberg says. “They know their passion and commitment to this work has never been more needed, and they’re ready to dive in and bring a group of other J.D. and LL.M. students into the fold.”
This academic year, RJP students will continue to work with partner organizations, doing the legal research that’s most important to helping those who need assistance. The organization’s ties are especially close with If/When/How, an Oakland nonprofit with deep Berkeley Law roots that focuses on using the legal and policy system to advance reproductive justice across a full spectrum.
There are endless ways to fight in this uncertain time, Williams says, and groups like RJP are of critical importance. She and her fellow members feel the weight of the historical moment, and are galvanized by it.
“We can get loud, do the work, and continue to show up, even when it’s hard,” she says. “Especially when it’s hard!”