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

Liz Kukura

Law Students for Reproductive Justice found that only 18 percent of law schools have offered a reproductive rights law course sometime during the last seven years.  

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.

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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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