The Battle Over Reproductive Rights

Melissa Harris-Perry posed with David S. Cohen at the MSNBC studio following his appearance on the show
MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry posed with David S. Cohen following his appearance on her show

On the eve of the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on abortion, constitutional law and gender issues expert David S. Cohen joined MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” show for a discussion about the embattled issue of reproductive rights.

Time for Offensive in Fight Over Choice?

In the first segment, Cohen, along with University of Pennsylvania Professor Anthea Butler, Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup and GOP consultant Katon Dawson, discussed the impact of the Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The panel examined the strategy from mostly Republican-led legislatures and discussed whether this might be the turnaround point in the battle over reproductive health services.

When asked whether Roe v. Wade was a sufficient decision to continue to rest reproductive rights on, Cohen said: “Roe had promise but the problem was that it was cut back in Casey in 1992, the Supreme Court case that allowed a lot more restrictions from the state. [Casey] was basically the Supreme Court saying that you can do things that are burdensome on women’s rights as long as they’re not unduly burdensome.”

“Ever since Casey, we’ve seen the Court and lower courts be more receptive to infringements on women’s rights and women’s access to abortion,” he said. “Casey has really opened up the floodgates…it’s really troublesome what Casey has allowed.”

Why 35 Feet is So Critical

In the second segment, Cohen discussed the importance of buffer zones, as the Supreme Court mulls a Massachusetts law that limits protesters’ access to abortion clinic entrances.

Buffer zones that require protesters to keep a specified distance from women’s health clinic entrances are critical to protecting patients and care providers from harassment and worse, Cohen said.

Doctors and other clinic workers and volunteers face threats on a daily basis, said Cohen.

Dangers have been keenly felt in Massachusetts, he said, citing the deaths of clinic receptionists Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, who were murdered in 1994 because they provided abortions.

“Buffer zones don’t cure the problem, but they provide a space,” Cohen said, observing that anti-abortion activist Paul Hill was able to shoot and kill a doctor by standing directly outside the clinic entrance.

Reproductive Rights Supporters Get NC Victory

Finally, the panel discussed a recent federal court ruling that struck down a North Carolina law requiring ultrasounds on the program. The judge ruled that the law was a violation of free speech.

How did this law violate the First Amendment?

“In this regard, it’s telling doctors what to say and it’s infringing on the doctor-patient relationship,” Cohen said. “Because if a doctor says that I can treat this woman and I can ensure her health in a particular way, and the state is saying you have to do something different, then that’s an infringement on that relationship.”

“It goes beyond that, though,” he said. “It’s also about the state saying, ‘We know what’s best for women. Women don’t know what’s best for women, doctors don’t know what’s best for women, counselors don’t know what’s best for women, but we, the legislators, do.’ [These legislators] have probably never been in an abortion clinic, never been pregnant – and can’t even get pregnant, because most of them are men.

“It’s really women who know what’s best for women, in consultation with their doctors and whoever else they’re talking to.”

About David S. Cohen

Cohen is an associate professor in Drexel University’s School of Law. His scholarship explores the intersection of constitutional law and gender, emphasizing sex segregation, masculinity and violence against abortion providers. He also researches voting anomalies in the Supreme Court.

Cohen recently completed a groundbreaking national study about the toll that working under the constant threat of violence takes on abortion clinic workers. He is writing a book on this subject which is due out later this year from Oxford University Press.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Cohen, can contact Alex McKechnie at 215-895-2705 or

Sarah Greenblatt contributed to this blog post.