The UC Hastings professor fights for social justice and gender equity as a lawyer, health policy researcher, author, and teacher.
Professor Jennifer Dunn has been on the frontlines – even targeted and threatened by anti-abortion activists. But Dunn is not deterred. She’s even more determined, as she devotes a career to reproductive justice.
“It is about more than abortion,” explained Dunn, a 1998 graduate of UC Hastings who has been teaching Women’s Health and Reproductive Justice to UC Hastings students since 2010. “The reproductive justice framework takes an intersectional approach, focusing on structural inequalities that impact the health and access to reproductive health care in marginalized communities.”
“It includes the right not to have children, as well as the right to have children and the right to parent children in a safe and healthy environment,” said Dunn.
Her commitment to reproductive justice today is rooted to her experience in the early 1990s as a teen counselor and prenatal services coordinator for mostly Spanish-speaking patients at a Planned Parenthood clinic in East San Jose. Dunn recalls her frustration when, despite numerous calls to local shelters, she could not find a bed for the homeless and pregnant teenager sitting across from her. She recounted another occasion when a miscarrying woman came to the clinic after being turned away from a Catholic hospital — without treatment or referral — because the hospital “did not provide abortions.”
She decided then to become a lawyer to tackle issues involving gender equity, systemic racism and health disparities. Dunn was accepted for early admission to UC Hastings in 1995. “Hastings was not easy on its students back then,” she recalled. “But we had a strong community of faculty, students and alumni who shared a deep commitment to social justice and public service.”
Later, as a lawyer in California and New York, Dunn litigated health care and civil rights cases in state and federal courts. Today, her legal perspective is often sought for national forums and panels on health law topics, such as health reform, maternal health, and abortion rights.
In 2015, she was a panelist at a National Abortion Federation (NAF) meeting in San Francisco, which was infiltrated by anti-abortion activists who had used fake identities and documents to gain access and videotape confidential NAF and Planned Parenthood meetings.
Soon after, the perpetrators — members of the Center for Medical Progress — released highly-edited videos on the internet to enrage abortion foes. Dunn was one of several advocates who appeared on the videos. Many of her colleagues received death threats and some even had to move or secure FBI protection. Dunn later joined a lawsuit against the offenders.
“As the lawyers, it’s our job to help the providers and clinics so that they can continue to safely serve our communities,” she said.
Dunn’s advocacy for reproductive justice is local, supporting California’s abortion providers, and global, addressing racial and gender discrimination in maternity care. Last fall, she was lead author of a health sciences journal article – “The Role of Human Rights Litigation in Improving Access to Reproductive Health Care and Achieving Reductions in Maternal Mortality,” – which examined cases of discrimination against poor and marginalized women in India, Brazil, Peru and Uganda. The article, co-written with health sciences and law students whom she mentored, also highlighted how lawyers can play an important role in the global maternal health and reproductive justice movements.
She is quick to point out, however, that maternal mortality is not just an issue in developing countries. The U.S. has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths among countries with comparable wealth.
“Black mothers are three to four-times more likely to die in childbirth than other races and ethnicities,” said Dunn. “This is unacceptable in a nation of our wealth and resources.”
“We need to work on improving maternity care and birth outcomes for all,” she said. “This means shining a light on a society that devalues women and girls. It means challenging implicit and systemic racism in all its forms.”
Dunn wears many hats as she advocates for reproductive justice. But when asked about her favorite job, it was no contest: teaching.
This fall, she is teaching her Reproductive Justice Seminar at UC Hastings. In the spring, she will teach a combined UC Hastings and UCSF course on International and Comparative Health Law.
“I love teaching UC Hastings students because they’re smart, passionate and committed,” she said. “They are trying to figure out, in whatever professional path they pursue, how to use their skills and education to pursue justice for themselves and others.”
Dunn’s own career path is a good model and lesson for all.