Carole Joffe is a professor emerita at UC Davis and current professor at ANSIRH, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UCSF.
Carole Joffe is a professor emerita at UC Davis and current professor at ANSIRH, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UCSF.

Q&A: This abortion rights advocate is energized, not demoralized

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Sociologist Carole Joffe, 76, has devoted her professional life to the study and advancement of reproductive rights in America. A professor emerita at UC Davis and current professor at ANSIRH, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (a program at UCSF’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences), Joffe focuses on the social dimensions of reproductive health, with a particular interest in abortion provision. She conducts a webinar for physicians and others about the social science aspects of abortion. “Interest is very high,” she says.

Joffe has authored numerous books, articles and opinion pieces on the topic of reproductive rights, and has won national honors for her efforts. She resides in the East Bay and is a member of Jewish Renewal Congregation Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

J.: When did you first get involved in the issue of reproductive rights?

Carole Joffe: Unlike many people who are involved, my route was not from the politics of abortion to the scholarly. It was the other way around. In 1970, I was a grad student in sociology at UC Berkeley and the feminist movement was exploding all over the place. I was very interested in how it was affecting social policy. I’d been studying child care, and many of the people who were very opposed to child care were strongly opposed to abortion. They thought it would destroy the family.

In 1976, I visited a Planned Parenthood clinic that performed abortion procedures, and at some level I’ve never left it.

The many dimensions of this issue are so fascinating: sources of the anti-abortion movement, why so few doctors do this work, why those that do find it deeply satisfying.

My route was more of an intellectual one than a political one.

Many states have been restricting abortion rights. Why do you think there has been so much backsliding on the issue?

This question gets raised a lot. There is a big difference between our country and other Western nations, where there’s not such a large block of the Christian right. The anti-abortion movement over the years has been one of the key pillars of the modern Republican Party — there’s just a handful of exceptions, like the governors of Massachusetts and Maryland.

How large a role does the Catholic Church play in the anti-abortion movement?

The Catholic Church is a huge factor. What started to happen in the late ’70s was a marriage between evangelical Protestants and Catholics. They joined forces to oppose abortion.

Is there a Jewish position?

With the exception of Orthodox Jewish groups, most Jewish groups are extremely pro-choice. The National Council of Jewish Women has been very outspoken on this issue. Also, my sense is that Jews are overrepresented among the population of abortion providers.

What is your religious background?

I grew up in western Massachusetts in a town with a very tight, small Jewish community. Our household was culturally Jewish. My parents were Russian Jews — my father came to the U.S. in 1939, my mother in 1940 on the last ship that left Belgium.

I went to Brandeis for my undergraduate degree — who knew there were so many Jews?

If the Supreme Court upholds Dobbs v.  Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi law banning abortion operations after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, will abortion still be legal in America?

It will be state by state. Abortion will remain legal in California — people in the state are now preparing for many women to travel from out of state to come here. Last year, Gov. Newsom convened the California Future of Abortion Council. There’s serious planning going on.

In the abortion-rights world, we now speak of “hostile” states — about 26 are expected to ban abortion — and the rest are “haven” states. California, New York, Illinois will be key places that will need to be prepared to have greatly increased demand for services.

My current research involves talking to abortion providers and advocates and asking this question: How are you getting ready?

Considering the court let stand the Texas law barring abortion after the first six weeks of pregnancy, any prediction on Dobbs?

It’s just astounding that the Supreme Court has allowed that law to stand. Many of the lawyers I’ve talked to think this is a giveaway for how they are going to decide.

As an advocate for abortion rights, do you get discouraged?

I work with wonderful colleagues, and my research brings me in contact with people who run clinics, perform abortions and provide funding. I spend my working life with extraordinary, committed, hard-working people, and that’s uplifting for me. In that sense I’m not discouraged. Also, I am encouraged and proud of the efforts in California.

On the other hand, when Trump gets to appoint three extremely conservative judges to the Supreme Court, it is at this moment very, very serious.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.