After Roe: Finding a way forward

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community,

This is a hard day.

The Supreme Court has overturned the right to abortion — a fundamental and essential component of health care.

We know that women will die because of this ruling, forced to seek illegal and unsafe abortions or forced to carry pregnancies to term in dangerous circumstances. We know the hardship and the pain will fall disproportionately on poor women and women of color.

The ruling is not a surprise. We knew it was coming. But it is still a gut punch.

And it lands on top of another blow: Yesterday’s decision overturning a sensible gun safety law in New York. That opinion will force states including Massachusetts to scrap or significantly water down laws that have helped to reduce gun violence.

I’m sure many of you feel these setbacks in your very core.

Maternal mortality was already a public health crisis. Equitable access to care was already a public health crisis. Gun violence was already a public health crisis.

These rulings will make those crises worse.

But this community — this profession — is not cowed by crisis. We don’t run away from challenges. We run toward them. We illuminate problems. We identify solutions. And we translate those powerful ideas into the programs and policies that build a healthier world.

In ways large and small, we make a difference.

At times like this, I often go back and read the stories of our students.

Akosua Dankwah, DrPH ’22, launched a licensed free clinic in Pawtucket, R.I., to extend health care to more residents, including a large African immigrant population.

Harim Won, a Ph.D. candidate, is developing a novel antibiotic to treat tuberculosis.

Patience Saaka, MPH ’22, is creating a digital tool to help rural providers in Ghana access essential supplies.

Ellen Chappelka, MPH ’22, is working to protect U.S. communities from bioterrorist attack.

And there are so many more, doing so much more, to protect public health around the world. Every member of this community is committed to that mission.

Weeks like this one are tough. Six justices have stripped vital protections from tens of millions of Americans. They are, without question, endangering public health.

But this is also a week in which Congress will enact, and the president will sign, the first major gun safety law in decades, which includes hundreds of millions in new funding for mental health services.

It’s not comprehensive. It’s not enough. But it is progress.

And it came about because people committed to public health refused to give up. They fought and they fought, sometimes for decades, to move the ball forward, one inch at a time. They built their case with mountains of evidence. They communicated their views with clarity and conviction. They found ways to forge common ground with political opponents. And they succeeded in moving the ball. This is a modest step, but a valuable one. We’re moving in the right direction. And that is important to remember.

Protecting access to abortion and promoting stronger gun safety laws will not be easy in our current political environment.

That’s why I always go back to the stories of our students. They remind me, every time I need reminding, that our community is alight with purpose, blazing with energy, and absolutely determined to make a difference in the world.

We are not deterred by challenges. We are fired up to meet them.



Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School