Temple Law School welcomed Patty Skuster as the Beck Chair in Law for the 2021-2022 academic year. Professor Skuster joins a line of Beck Chairs dating back to its establishment in 1999. The Chair, which was established through the support of the Independence Foundation, brings notable leaders and outstanding scholars in law, or a field related to law, to the Temple Law faculty.
Professor Skuster, who specializes in international reproductive rights and the regulation of abortion globally, has authored dozens of publications and spent 15 years with Ipas, a global health organization. We sat down with her to learn more about the Beck Chair and its impact on her work.
Temple Law School: Professor Skuster, how has your position as the Beck Chair in Law informed your work?
Professor Skuster: I spent most of my career at Ipas, a global health NGO. My work at Ipas was rooted in the provision of abortion care and responded to legal issues encountered by Ipas colleagues overseas, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I had the privilege of collaborating with incredible advocates and committed policy makers all over the world, as we promoted scientific evidence and human rights within national abortion law and policy. We also worked on global advocacy, to influence US foreign policy on abortion and international human rights law. And we tackled problems that arose from application of law, for example, partnering with police on abortion care and reducing legal risk associated with self-managed abortion and abortion care in humanitarian settings.
I spent my later years at Ipas more focused on research and in that capacity partnered with Temple Law’s Center for Public Health Law Research on a policy surveillance project related to self-managed abortion and a World Health Organization project related to evidence of the effect of abortion law. CPHLR’s approach of legal epidemiology aligns with my experience and interest in understanding how abortion laws operate to effect abortion outcomes, at the individual and population levels.
The Beck Chair has provided me space to develop a research direction toward better understanding the effect of abortion law. I’m very grateful to the Law School for the opportunity and Judge Beck for her leadership in creation of the Beck Chair.
My upcoming work includes a new project with CPHLR that looks at how to measure implementation of abortion law. I am also looking at the effect of criminalization and thinking through mechanisms for compliance with abortion law here in the US. I’m exploring new partnerships, as I see great potential for legal epidemiology in abortion research. My experience at Ipas grounded me in immediate and practical needs related to abortion and the law but now I have time for more in-depth research on a longer time scale.
TLS: The Supreme Court arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson have the potential to change the future of abortion law in America. What advice do you have for law students interested in specializing in reproductive rights as they look towards the future?
PS: The certain outcome of Dobbs v. Jackson is shrinking of legal protection for abortion under the U.S. Constitution, potentially no protection at all. But what won’t change is the unequal impact of abortion restrictions, which most harm groups that face discrimination in other areas of their lives. People who have advantages will continue to be able to get the abortion care they need, even if Roe v. Wade is overturned and even if they live in a state where abortion is banned. But many people will have no access to abortion. Our work in reproductive rights is ensuring that everyone can get the care they need. Reproductive justice, a term developed by a group of Black women in 1994, is helpful for understanding that our work is toward the right to bodily autonomy for everyone, and this includes the right to prevent or end pregnancies, as well as to have children and parent, freely.
All eyes are on the Supreme Court, but so much work continues at the state and local levels to keep restrictions at bay, and, where possible, work toward state-level legal protection for abortion. We need lawyers to help individuals who need legal assistance with asserting their reproductive rights. We need scholars to research and more fully understand the impact of abortion policy. And we need resources for people who need funding to pay for their abortion. There are endless ways to advocate for reproductive rights, as a full-time job or outside professional work.
Law students can think deeply about their unique role and what they can contribute, given their talents, background, experiences, and interests. What draws you to this work? Where do you think you can make the greatest impact? Law school is a unique period during which students can explore alternatives.
TLS: This fall semester you taught Health and Human Rights, and in the spring, you’ll be teaching Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice. What are your favorite parts of these classes to teach?
PS: I had a wonderful experience teaching Health and Human Rights in the fall. I’m unsure whether Temple Law’s brightest, most committed, and engaged students all registered for my fall class, or whether Temple Law has really terrific students overall. I suspect the latter.
I had taught my Health and Human Rights course in Penn’s fantastic MPH program for several years, but this was the first time teaching it to law students. I really enjoyed it! My Temple Law students this fall continually took a critical approach to questions around the impact of international human rights law, which I appreciated. I was impressed with the energy they brought to the many social justice issues we addressed in class.
In the spring I’ll teach Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice in the midst of shifting constitutional law on abortion. I learned constitutional law as the Supreme Court was deciding the meaning of equal protection under the 14th Amendment, in a landmark case on affirmative action at my law school, which helped me understand more deeply the political nature of law. For better or worse, I’m certain law students today already have this understanding. But I expect that Dobbs v Jackson looming in the background and the attention to abortion rights outside of class will enhance students’ engagement with the topic and my teaching.