At 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, approximately 400 Amherst College students walked out of classes, made their way to the Amherst Town Common, and protested in response to the recently leaked draft Supreme Court opinion indicating that the court was ready to overturn its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which deemed abortion bans unconstitutional.
The draft was leaked to the public less than 72 hours before the protest, late in the night of Monday, May 2. Assuming it does not change before its official release sometime this summer, the opinion would be one of the court’s most consequential rulings in recent history, ending constitutional protection of abortion rights and allowing states, and even potentially the federal government, to ban abortion.
Across Amherst College and the nation, a normal Monday evening quickly turned into a night many will not soon forget. Social media feeds, a few minutes prior flush with the latest looks from the Met Gala, were soon filled with messages decrying the decision.
As the news sank in, members of the Reproductive Justice Alliance (RJA) and organizers from the broader college community sprang into action. By 11:30 p.m., just three hours after the opinion was leaked, the planning for a “mass mobilization,” as Lisa Zheutlin ’22, president of RJA, described it, had begun.
At a rapid-response meeting of the RJA on Tuesday, about 80 students crammed into couches, stood against walls, and sat criss-cross on the ground, packing the McCaffrey Room in Keefe Campus Center. The core team of organizers — which included Zheutlin, Hibiscus Zhang ’25, Olive Amdur ’23, Victoria Thomas ’25, Sonia Chajet Wides ’25 (managing news editor), Sikkiim Hamilton ’23, and EJ Collins ’23 — presided over the meeting.
The discussion began with students sharing their feelings. Shock, anger, and sadness were mixed with a sense of hope at the large turnout and at knowing that similar meetings were taking place at other colleges, and in other towns and cities across the country.
A walkout was planned for two days later, in conjunction with walkouts at more than 20 other colleges and universities — collectively called the Reproductive Freedom Protest. “We chose 2 p.m. to draw the most attention and disruption,” Zheutlin said. “We decided that more people would attend if it was in the middle of the day.”
When 2 p.m. rolled around on Thursday, students streamed out of classes toward the Valentine Quad, where they gathered before walking to the Amherst Town Common. Beneath a bright sun and a cloudless sky on what was one of the warmest days of the semester, the moving mass of students clogged sidewalks and interrupted traffic on College Street. Protestors were encouraged to wear green as a nod to the “Green Wave,” the campaign for safe and legal abortion that helped deliver groundbreaking progress on reproductive rights in Argentina.
With President Biddy Martin, clad in green, looking on and local television cameras rolling, the procession formed a circle on the grass.
Zheutlin began a series of speeches, declaring, “Roe was supposedly our rock, something that I personally grew up with as a basic fact of life that I’ve now come to realize I took for granted.”
Though she had led campus activism against threats to reproductive rights for years, she said, “I never truly believed that our legal right to abortion would be taken away.” She described her “hope that we can move beyond the hopelessness that some of us feel right now.”
Zhang, then delivered a land acknowledgement — noting that it was the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People — and encouraged those present to donate to abortion funds catering directly to Indigenous communities. It was the beginning of a major thrust of the day’s speeches — an emphasis on the ways that the end of Roe may disproportionately impact marginalized communities.
Next to speak was Jallicia Jolly, a current postdoctoral fellow and incoming assistant professor of American studies and Black studies who currently teaches a class on “Black Women and Reproductive Justice in the African Diaspora.” She began by telling students present that “the next time we gather like this, let’s make sure it’s in the offices and institutional halls of our elected officials.”
She continued by connecting the issues at stake in the abortion rights case to the broader umbrella of reproductive justice, which including things like “quality childcare.” She ended by encouraging the students present to continue to “pull up” — to make their voices heard on issues they care about.
After Jolly’s speech, two other organizers took the stage (a park bench) for prepared speeches. Chajet Wides argued that the leaked draft ought to usher in a period of action: “This leak has bought us a month to defend and prepare until the decision actually lands.” She emphasized the need to strengthen networks of community care in the face of a potential end to Roe.
Thomas then spoke, pointing to the special threat the potential decision posed to those living in conservative states. “On days like today I think of my best friend Mari, who lives in Texas,” she said. “I think of my nieces in Florida who are quite young, but evidently are old enough to feel this weight in one way or another.”
The floor was then opened up for anybody who felt inclined to speak, and a long succession of community members took turns on the mic, some drawing raucous applause.
Caden Stockwell ’25 and Phoebe Neilsen ’25 made their way forward to share the results of research into the Amherst Board of Trustees’ political contributions. The pair claimed that members of the college’s governing body had contributed to the political machine that had brought about the potential end of Roe, pointing to five- and six-figure donations to conservative causes made by trustees in recent years.
On social media posts later in the day, students suggested that it was not a coincidence that Martin was seen walking away from the protest during their speech.
Though it has commented on political issues in the past, the administration has yet to release a statement on the leaked draft opinion.
Neilsen continued by connecting the concerns over abortion rights and trustee political donations to the board’s recent decision endorsing the continued presence of the Amherst College Police Department on campus: “This is the guy who gets to decide whether or not we get cops on this campus,” she said, in reference to Trustee David MacLennan ’81. A later post on RJA’s Instagram called attention to the $5,000 MacLennan contributed to the House Republican Campaign Committee of Minnesota in 2016.
After close to an hour of speeches, the protest wound down and the crowd of green dispersed, slowly drifting back toward campus.
The organizers said they were happy with the turnout for the protest, though Zheutlin said, “Obviously, I wish everyone at the school attended because this is an issue that affects everyone, whether or not you have a uterus.”
Some students had a somewhat less favorable view. Anna Penner ’24 said that she was “disappointed and surprised by how few male students are actually out [for the protest].” She said, “I just think it doesn’t feel real to them, which is understandable. But I don’t know how to make it more clear that this does feel real.”
Nevertheless, those gathered seemed almost unanimous in a hope that the walkout would be the beginning, not the end, of a phase of activism on campus. “There’s a lot of rage and grief in our community, but coming together to remember that these feelings are rooted in love has been so important,” said Nichole Fernandez ’25. “I hope this protest turns out to be the catalyst for the development of a strong protest culture on campus.”
RJA’s efforts have continued in the days following the walkout. It held a phone-banking session on Friday, May 6, to put pressure on senators to codify Roe via federal legislation and is tabling in Keefe all this week to solicit donations to abortion rights funds.
Within the Amherst community, Zheutlin said that the group was “aiming to have structures in place so that if Roe falls, students at Amherst would still have access to abortion and reproductive justice,” including granting students access to the medication abortions that will be available at the UMass Amherst pharmacy next fall and making it easier to travel to the nearest abortion clinic, a 45-minute drive away in Springfield.
She said that the group was also “thinking through how to promote activism within hometown communities when we are off campus.”
Emphasizing the fact that reproductive justice is about more than abortion, Zheutlin said that RJA was looking into formalizing a set of demands that would make the college’s childcare more affordable and provide better compensation for its childcare workers.
As the college community and the nation brace for the high court’s final decision, Zheutlin encouraged continued activism. “Whether you showed up to the protest on Thursday or not,” she said, “we hope to see you continue the fight with us.”