PhD stydent in History and Women's and Gender Studies Rianna Johnson-Levy discusses the history of abortion before and after Roe vs. Wade in the Palmer Commons Wednesday. Sydney Hastings-Wilkins/Daily. Buy this photo.

The Institute for Research on Women and Gender hosted an event Wednesday to discuss the history of abortion access for University of Michigan students and context surrounding a critical vote this November for reproductive rights. Held in Palmer Commons, the event centered around Rackham student Rianna Johnson-Levy’s report for the History and Women’s and Gender Studies department.

Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones and Christine S. Asidao, associate director of community engagement and outreach for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), also spoke at the event, describing the current role of the University in providing medical and emotional care support in reproductive services. 

Johnson-Levy’s report, titled “Before Roe: The University of Michigan’s Task Force for Problem Pregnancy Counseling”, outlines the history of pregnant people on the University’s campus since Roe v. Wade was first passed in 1973, legalizing abortions in the United States. Johnson-Levy said she was compelled to do her research after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade to inform people about what the University could do to support pregnant people in a post-Roe era.

“While abortion is still legal in Michigan, this history is our precedent for the current moment,” Johnson-Levy said. “Before Roe, University of Michigan administrators and staff acted courageously to ensure student access to safe, legal and affordable abortions.”

Johnson-Levy began the discussion of her report by highlighting the Task Force for Problem Pregnancy Counseling, an organization that established campus-wide pregnancy counseling and abortion referral services. The task force was formed in the years leading up to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and was led by staff members working within the University’s Office of Religious Affairs. The task force was designed to support students in their decisions regarding pregnancies and reproductive rights as well as inform them about available services.

In the few years before the legalization of abortion in 1973, the task force directed students to reproductive health clinics in the state of New York — where abortion was legalized in 1970. Johnson-Levy said the task force played a key role in assisting patients in finding resources and travel expenses. 

“The Office of Religious Affairs would quickly recruit counselors from across the university to join the effort and eventually would collaborate with local social services, organizations, medical clinics and women’s groups in Ann Arbor,” Johnson-Levy said.

Johnson-Levy said the task force originated through the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), a similar organization based in New York. CCS saw the issue regarding the illegality of abortion as an issue of inequality, as therapeutic abortions were only accessible to white, rich privileged women.

“Therapeutic hospital abortions were only available for those deemed worthy in cases determined medically necessary by hospital boards,” Johnson-Levy said. “The clergy found through a study that women’s access to therapeutic abortion had more to do with her respectability and the networks she was a part of — whether she was white, rich, privileged and married … This left single women, the poor and women of Color to seek abortions from those operating without oversight or legal approval.”

Johnson-Levy said the task force played a major role in providing pregnant people with safe and economically viable abortions in the pre-Roe era. She described how administrators, counselors and U-M staff members were committed to addressing an ethical responsibility to their community through increasing accessibility and information about reproductive health.

“It wasn’t an issue of anti-choice (or) pro-choice, it was an issue of need and … a responsibility to help,” Johnson-Levy said. “It is inspiring in this moment where we have such a divide and people are sort of taught from very young what they should believe.”

Asidao said the University has continued to provide many resources to the campus community through CAPS, which is currently located on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union. CAPS services include therapists in 18 out of the 19 colleges at the University. 

“What we really focus on is providing individual therapy, as well as relationship therapy and group therapy to our students on a wide variety of matters including really looking at their own decision-making they need going through,” Asidao said. “We also provide a variety of different workshops and we also have places where students can just drop in and relax through our wellness zones.” 

In past years, students have expressed frustrations with wait times at CAPS, inefficient distribution of resources between Central and North campus and a lack of support for students of Color.

In May, the University created a task force aimed to support and provide resources to students in the case of a state-wide ban on abortion. The task force engaged in listening sessions with students to gauge campus community feedback, which informed the University on what reproductive healthcare resources should be supplied on campus and in Michigan, as well as financial coverage for students. 

Blake Jones said the current task force will continue to support students as Michigan voters prepare to vote on Proposal 3, which has the potential to codify abortion in the state of Michigan.

“Conversations (with students) were funneled back to the task force and informed a lot of the work of the task force,” Blake Jones said. “Coming from what we’ve heard from students, a number of communications campaigns and communications resources have been launched.”

Blake Jones said the task force directs students to the University’s reproductive health services, which provide access to contraceptives, abortion referrals and early pregnancy care. She also discussed the importance of supporting pregnant or parenting students through emergency funds for immediate medical care and initiatives for emergency contraceptives.

“Currently we’ve expanded the services for the ability to provide Plan B in our convenience stores that are located on various locations around the campus,” Blake Jones said. “We’re looking at the ability, as some institutions have done, to have vending machines … and it would not just be a vending machine that only has … Plan B in it — it would be a variety of health and wellbeing.” 

Asidao described the components of social justice demonstrated by the administration in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically by Len Scott, the counseling director for the Office of Religious Affairs. She discussed how Scott demonstrated the importance of mental health providers by helping students work through their challenges without imposing his own beliefs onto their decisions.

“Just like then, as it is now, it’s about understanding the intersectionality of multiple factors, the students’ multiple social identities, how family cultural messages affect the decision-making process and ultimately providing a safe and confidential space in which to explore options and support a student in what comes down to their personal decision,” Asidao said. 

LSA junior Annie Macintosh said the event helped her understand what is happening on campus post-Roe and what resources are available to students. She said the event also informed her of the historical context of abortion at the University pre-Roe. 

“I just learned a lot about how the services are still providing (for) students and how concerned they are about students’ needs,” Macintosh said. “ Just kind of navigating that was really helpful for me to hear.”

Johnson-Levy said she is optimistic that abortion will remain legal in Michigan, but wants people to think about what the University can do after a drastic change in legislation and prepare students to contribute to creating a more equitable landscape in the post-Roe era. 

“Access to abortion is part of a larger sort of picture to access to healthcare and access to emotional and psychological support,” Johnson-Levy said.

Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Halak can be reached at