Carol Sanger ’70 was planning to pursue a Ph.D. when her then-husband began law school. She had been a history major at Wellesley, so a history doctorate seemed like the logical next step. But, “I really think you’d like this,” Carol’s husband said to her one day when he came home from school. He suggested she sit in on some of his classes. “This is kind of fun,” she thought after a few days of auditing. A Ph.D. in history was history.
Carol is now the Barbara Aronstein Black Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and a renowned scholar of reproductive rights. She teaches courses on contracts, family law, the legal profession, and law and gender, and she is the author of About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First Century America, which addresses the power of fetal imagery, the differences between abortion privacy and abortion secrecy, and new connections between abortion law and American culture and politics.
Carol arrived at Columbia via Oregon and California. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked for a small law firm in litigation. But she knew she wanted to teach, and took a job at the University of Oregon Law School, followed by a teaching position at Santa Clara University, and then one at Stanford. She moved to New York for the job at Columbia in 1992.
In Oregon, she had begun teaching courses on family law; during this time she also had the first of her two children. These circumstances led her to begin to think deeply about questions like: How does the law influence the choices women make to become mothers, or put children up for adoption? How do women use the law when they want to figure out what their families look like? These big questions drew Carol to more deeply study and teach about laws relating to reproductive rights. At Columbia, she teaches a course on reproductive rights of all kinds—surrogacy, adoption, sterilization, abortion—as well as a course called Meanings of Motherhood, co-taught with a historian.
“Generally, the students who take my courses are progressive,” Carol says. “They’re not there for a political fight, they just want to learn stuff. Though sometimes we have a few people who are against abortion, and that always makes the class more interesting.” Something that both impresses and upsets her is how her anti-abortion students see everything so definitively. “It’s regrettable that everything is so clear to them,” she says, “because, in life, things don’t stay clear.” She bemoans the moral weight that many people attach to the decision whether or not to have children; they don’t even see that they have options. “Many of them live in a world where there is no choice, and motherhood is the only path,” she says. “And I love motherhood! It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s a hard thing.”
Questions Carol has been thinking about her entire career came into particularly sharp focus this summer with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson, overturning Roe v. Wade. The decision frustrated but did not surprise her. “It’s been a very sobering few years, watching Justice Ginsburg die, watching the shape of the court change, watching the return of anti-abortion organizations on college campuses—organizations that are very well-organized and confident.” She points out that many young women today can’t imagine what they are up against, having had the “luxury of legality” in terms of abortion for their entire lives. “I think that once this generation sees what it is like to live without reproductive freedom, they will reconsider,” Carol says.
Carol points out that the Dobbs decision will have ripple effects. Because Roe was based on the matter of privacy, other rights that are upheld by privacy could also come under attack, such as access to contraception, the legality of same-sex marriage, or anything involving an embryo, including IVF treatments. Minors will also have particular trouble accessing abortion, even with parental consent, as so many trigger laws ban abortion for them. Carol worries about how abortion will be taught in medical schools going forward. Additionally, she says it will be quick work to start to criminalize pregnant people who do anything that could be considered endangering the fetus—such as drinking a glass of wine to taking medication for mental health disorders. “All we are doing is adding one more crime to the criminal code,” she says. “We already have police, investigators, criminal law … all we are doing is adding one more crime.”
Carol hopes that more men will get involved in the fight, not just as abortion clinic escorts, but as fund-raisers and political advocates. “It would be nice for all of this to be understood as a parenting issue and not all put on women’s heads,” she says. “Women get all the blame. They’re the immoral ones. … We trust women to do everything when it comes to raising children, but we don’t trust them to know the substance of their life enough to know they can take care of one, two, or no children.”
She encourages those dismayed by recent events not to lose hope: “Wellesley women are very well-positioned and active in their communities.” Carol suggests that alums take advantage of their networks and connections to make change, emphasizing that all these issues are tied up in the matter of voter suppression. Carol stresses that everyone needs to be able to vote, regardless of their zip code, socioeconomic status, or the shape of their district.
And what else can Wellesley graduates do to make change? “Step up,” she says.