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Aspen Ideas Festival reacts to a post-Roe world

The Aspen Ideas Festival brings in leading voices to discuss the most pressing issues facing our nation and the world. This year’s focus was a little out of the ordinary — the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had overturned Roe v. Wade, effectively returning abortion rights to state legislators, on the third day of the festival.

The announcement came on the tail end of the health-focused portion of the festival, prompting organizers and speakers to shift gears to discuss the historic moment.

On Friday evening, the festival organized a panel titled “Breaking News Session: The Impact of Roe v. Wade Overturned.” The talk, which took place at the Greenwald Pavilion, featured an array of speakers with expertise ranging from reproductive rights to constitutional law.

Panelist Katie Keith, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, said the court’s ruling brings up more questions than it answers.

“There's so many questions — states don't know what to do,” Keith said. “The short story is a morass.”

She added that the decision raises litigation questions involving interstate travel, private insurers, medication abortions, personal privacy and surveillance.

Linda Villarosa, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, was another speaker at the breaking news panel. She has written extensively about the ways health care policies in the U.S. have failed communities of color, and worries that the court’s ruling may continue the trend.

“Maternal mortality and this abortion law are intricately connected,” Villarosa said. “Black women are three to four times more likely to die or almost die related to pregnancy and childbirth. And this law will make everything worse.”

Villarosa also said the Supreme Court’s decision transcends abortion access.

“This is not just abortion,” she said. “It’s about three things: the right to have a baby, the right not to have a baby and the right to raise children in safe, healthy environments.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a last-minute addition to the festival’s Wednesday lineup, gave a tribute to the late Madeleine Albright, who, along with Clinton, is one of the three women to have served as the country’s top diplomat. Condoleezza Rice is the third.

Clinton said Albright probably would have been upset to see Roe overturned.

“Honestly, I think Madeline would be as worried as I am, both about the impact of the decision on real women's and family's lives, but also about what it says about how our country is retreating from trying to figure out how we have a big, inclusive, pluralistic democracy,” Clinton said.

According to Clinton, even blue states could see abortion bans, depending on the outcome of future elections.

“Look, I think it will be very difficult,” Clinton said. “If the Republicans gain a majority, particularly if they get a Republican president, they will try to pass a federal law banning abortion.”

Clinton also mentioned what the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun had said about abortion access when he wrote the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s original 1973 decision.

“And he kept saying, ‘What we're trying to do is to leave this choice to the individual to her conscience, to her doctor. We're not dictating the choice,’” Clinton said.

Blackmun had ties to the Aspen Institute and had asked that some of his ashes would be buried on the Meadows Campus where the festival takes place, according to Elliot Gerson, executive vice president of the Aspen Institute.

Clinton criticized the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

“Remember, [women] weren't in the Constitution, that is true. We weren't in the 14th and 13th amendment. That is true. But that's not our fault, and we shouldn't be blamed for the fact that we were left out of our Constitution until we finally fought our way into it,” Clinton said.

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision, another talk changed course to touch on the impacts of the monumental decision.

A talk titled “Overhauling Women’s Health Care” was intended to focus on the lack of research in women’s health care beyond reproductive issues. But, in the wake of the decision, journalist Maria Shriver said there was no way to not bring up the impact she thinks the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which returned federal abortion rights to the states, will have on American women.

“This is a devastating day in women's history, and women's right to choose and women's human rights,” Shriver said. “I think this is unparalleled.”

Fellow panelist Beri Ridgeway, chief of staff for the Cleveland Clinic, agreed with Shriver. She said the ruling won’t stop women from seeking an abortion, but instead will make them more dangerous.

“When we restrict abortion, we actually see an increase in death in women overall and an increase in their levels of illness related to pregnancy,” Ridgeway said.

Dr. Catherine Bernard, an emergency physician at Aspen Valley Hospital and the clinic’s chief of staff, attended the talk.

While grappling with the reality of the decision, she said it’s hard to understand how it will impact the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I can hardly believe it's real,” Bernard said. “I think for women, in general, it's going to change the way they feel about the freedom they have to choose, and I just can't imagine that right now.”

Joan Leavenworth, a volunteer at the festival and who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley, said she felt crushed by last Friday morning’s news and recalled working at her gynecologist’s clinic in college to help Texans get abortions before Roe v. Wade protections existed.

“I'm very upset about this new decision,” Leavenworth said. "It's nice to have to have a place to bounce these things around because it is so earth-shattering.”

Olympic freestyle skier Eileen Gu might be better known in Aspen for her skills on the slopes, but she returned to town this summer as a speaker at the festival, where she talked about Title IX. She said she’s concerned about the ways the decision will affect young athletes, and she thinks the decision was made with controlling women’s bodies in mind rather than considering women’s health.

“Nine percent of abortions are teenagers — and so when I think about my friends, my peers, myself as young female athletes and the amount of time that we have to put into our work and into training, and you know what taking a season off or taking a year off to carry an unwanted pregnancy will do to our careers and to our ambitions is absolutely devastating,” Gu said.

If state governments have more say on reproductive rights, then they should also improve the health care system that comes with such authority, Gu said.

“Absolutely in no world should the government be involved in regulating women's bodies and in our choices and what we do,” Gu said. “At the very least, if it is, then where's the infrastructure to actually support the children after birth? Where is the infrastructure to help foster kids? Where's increased medical care, paid parental leave? Where is increased access to birth control?”

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Jenna is the editor-in-chief of her college newspaper and joins the station for the summer to write on the arts and culture desk.