Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) recently completed its first comprehensive survey of reproductive rights and justice course offerings at all ABA-approved law schools in the U.S. for the last seven years. While perhaps not surprising to many within the legal academy, the findings provide striking confirmation that opportunities for formal study of reproductive rights law are severely limited. Among the study’s most significant findings:
- Only 18% 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).
- Forty-nine percent of those courses have been taught only once.
- Fifty-one percent of courses have been taught by full-time faculty.
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: 41% 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.
Looking at dedicated reproductive rights law courses alone does not tell the entire story, to be sure. Not limited simply to the contraception and abortion cases, reproductive rights and justice curriculum covers a broader set of issues, ranging from the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy to family welfare caps and from the shackling of incarcerated women during labor to access to assisted reproductive technologies. Many professors include reproductive rights and justice topics in courses on constitutional law, law & sexuality, family law, health law, poverty law, and in ART & bioethics courses, while some also raise reproductive justice themes in doctrinal courses such as criminal law and property law. Certain clinical experiences also expose law students to critical issues in the field. But such opportunities for students to explore reproductive rights law—whether integrated into broader courses or through clinics—are uneven and vary widely by professor. Furthermore, a student seeking such instruction may not be aware the opportunities are even available and may not have the ability to opt in to a particular first-year class where the professor incorporates reproductive justice themes.
Against that backdrop, there are a number of reasons why stand-alone reproductive rights law courses matter. From antitrust to land use to estate planning, lawyers with specific practice areas recognize that specialized courses are important, as they provide an opportunity to amass more substantive knowledge in one’s chosen field. They represent a chance to delve deeper into the cutting-edge issues and theoretical challenges law students will face throughout their legal careers—an opportunity currently unavailable to the majority of future reproductive rights and justice advocates. In addition, reproductive rights law seminars create a classroom structure that encourages more student writing—including student notes—on critical reproductive rights and justice topics.
More broadly, such training is relevant for law students heading into various kinds of public interest work, including future legal aid lawyers and others working within the criminal justice, child welfare, public health, or family court systems. Formal exposure to reproductive rights and justice during law school will help future social justice lawyers better understand the intersectional oppressions their clients face or the complexity of policy challenges they will be called on to solve.
Ultimately, all law students are served well by the opportunity to study reproductive rights law, regardless of their intended career path. Reproductive rights issues are relevant to all members of our society and are likely to occupy a prominent role in our political discourse for the foreseeable future. We all stand to benefit when law students with different personal and ideological backgrounds have the opportunity to explore the reproductive rights legal landscape by engaging text, legal reasoning, and social context with a professor’s guidance.
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 reproductive justice 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 for law school administrators and faculty who care about providing quality legal education. Finally, the course survey also serves as a call to action for law students to reach out to faculty allies and mount new course campaigns at their law schools, securing for themselves the educational opportunities that will prepare them to be effective advocates and informed, engaged citizens.
Liz Kukura is a Legal Fellow with Law Students for Reproductive Justice