11/26/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Mobilizing Towards Reproductive Justice?

This week the Supreme Court blocked an emergency application to overturn a recent law that will close one-third of abortion clinics in Texas. This law is already affecting the lives of thousands of women by denying them access to safe terminations.

This was the same law that Senator Wendy Davis triumphantly stalled with her 11-hour filibuster in June. A historic moment, captured on youtube, that continues to hold meaning, it provides a hopeful example of what effective citizen action can look like. Men and women and children and infants, in bright orange shirts, filled the Texas Capital gallery and protested with claps and hollers from the floor. They stood with Wendy Davis. The bill eventually passed, but those Texan citizens, and Senator Davis, reminded the public that not everyone agreed to the limitations imposed upon women. Far from it. Women have rights, and those rights need protecting.

Another headline this week: an appeals court in New York recently overturned a New York family court case in which a woman who moved to New York from California while seven months pregnant to attend Columbia University was reprimanded for "appropriation" of the unborn child. The father involved hired a lawyer for the fetus, and won custody in California. The case is significant: had it not been overturned, it would have signaled that custody cases can be brought even before a child's birth. And it shines a bright light on the vulnerability of women's constitutional rights when pregnant.

The success of the appeal brief, brought forward by National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the NYU School of Law Reproductive Justice Clinic, and six other legal groups was a victory for women's rights. As Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of NAPW declared, "this decision affirms that women who become pregnant may not be penalized for exercising their rights to travel and to seek an education".

As the Texas and New York cases show, the stakes today about women's rights are not simply ideological, nor solely about if a woman has the right to choose (or not choose) to have an abortion. With the rise of personhood amendments--and the granting of lawyers for fetuses-- the criminalization of pregnant women grows increasingly common.

What does this criminalization look like? State authorities turn every more frequently to legal tools to arrest and detain and force medical intervention upon pregnant women in the name of the unborn. A study by NAPW outlining these cases shows that the infringement of liberty holds for women who seek to end a pregnancy and also who wish to go to term.

If the Texas case this week shows that women's rights to make decisions about their bodies are at risk, the New York case widens the lens: so are basic human rights.

As the Director of the Alice Drum Women's Center and a faculty member of Women's and Gender Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, I read these headlines daily. I look to my students as the next generation of organizers and informed activists. I take heart from their thirst for knowledge and drive for engagement.

Women's Centers--both on and off college campuses-- have played a historical role in U.S. activist contexts-- offering spaces and expertise for fostering dialogue, raising consciousness, and dislodging sexism. They also, historically, have been a place to mobilize and educate. Recent years show that Women's Centers across the country are becoming more broadly defined spaces, in the best of cases, invested in revealing links between racism, homophobia, classism, and sexism. Interlocking systems of oppression call for interlocking frameworks for understanding.

What should such an imagined framework look like in this current state of women's rights under siege in the U.S.? A first step is grounding current day debates in larger, historical contexts. To help students make intellectual links that move from a narrow lens to a wider one.

One example of this is the annual Take Root conference, where students from red states organize towards the reproductive justice movement. The collective SisterSong defines reproductive justice as a shift "from a narrower focus on legal access and individual choice (the focus of mainstream organizations) to a broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on power." That may not sound like a particularly radical vision. But it is in today's climate.

The ongoing assault on women's rights highlights the importance of Women's Centers on college campuses across the country. When they were first instituted forty years ago, the founders surely looked forward to a time when they no longer would be needed. But as current events show us, they are critically important now.

Perhaps more than ever.