Melling Gives Constitution Day Talk, Speaks on Reproductive Justice

Julia Herbst, Staff Writer

Louise Melling, OC ’82 and deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, addressed the Oberlin community on Wednesday, Sept. 14, on the status of reproductive justice in the U.S. in a talk titled “I Have Sex: Why to Care About Reproduction Rights in the 21st Century.”

The talk was held in recognition of Constitution Day, which celebrates the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Melling connected the role of the Constitution with the heated debate that surrounds abortion and other current issues related to reproductive rights, and she stressed the importance of activism and involvement at the individual and state levels.

“I don’t care what legal theory we go into today,” said Melling. “I mean, really I do… but I care in the sense that it matters for purposes of precedent, it matters for where we can go. But really, the best legal theory isn’t going to hold what [rights] we have. If nobody cares, if nobody talks.”

This lack of conversation about issues such as abortion is highly problematic for Melling and is, in her view, part of a shift in the national political and social climate in the past few decades.

“There is no scarlet letter on my dress today, but given American culture today, perhaps there should be,” said Melling. “What I want to really talk to you [about] is the shame and stigma that’s come to be associated with abortion.”

Melling brought up President Obama’s recent comments on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in which he avoided mentioning the word “abortion” as evidence of this shift in the American political and social climate.

“This [speech was] for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade,” said Melling. “This is a guy who believes the Constitution protects the right to decide whether or not to have a child. But in this climate, [there are] no perks for saying that word. No points, no votes, no dollars, no benefit.” She frequently referred to the concept of reproductive rights being “chipped away” by pro-life opponents, a policy which she believes is more insidious than more direct legal banning.

“Our adversaries [are] less often seeking to do the bolder things like bans and instead [are] really concentrating on smaller things that are less likely to invite the ire of our activists. Some more things are passing and it’s harder to get them struck down,” said Melling.

This concept stood out to many who heard Melling speak, including College sophomore and Secretary of Oberlin Students United for Reproductive Freedom Samantha Paltrow-Krulwich.

“I’m glad that she talked about the other side chipping [away at pro-choice rights] because I think that’s really important,” said Paltrow-Krulwich. “I mean, cases like making a fetus have the same rights as a human being was a really scary step in the wrong direction. … There’s no way to give a fetus rights without directly affecting the mother’s rights.”

Melling told the audience that they were a crucial part of changing the conversation on abortion.

“I’m asking you guys to help make a difference. We have to normalize [abortion] and the way we normalize it is to talk about it. It can’t be in the closet. Politicians have to know that you care. People have to know that the women who have abortions aren’t demons and devils; they’re their mothers, their sisters, their aunts, their cousins, their friends. Because if we don’t stand up, why should anyone else?”

This sentiment was persuasive to some students, who came away from her talk feeling more motivated to get involved in the movement.

“I thought [Melling’s talk] was really interesting,” said College first-year Rachel Davidson. “I think it was a nice wake-up call for me because I think I was one of the people that she talked about [who didn’t feel] it’s a big deal until they’re taking away the entire right to an abortion. I think I knew in theory that the chip[ing away at rights] was important, but I hadn’t thought about it or put it into practice. It’s now going to be something that’s more on my mind.”