Sabrina Merold L’20 is a Penn Law Public Interest Fellow with the Federal Policy and Advocacy Team at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Q: Tell us about your fellowship, including where you’re working, the problems that you’re responding to, and the goals of your project.
A: I am currently a Penn Law Public Interest Fellow with the Center for Reproductive Rights’ Federal Policy and Advocacy Team in Washington, D.C. The Center for Reproductive Rights (“Center”) is a global human rights organization of lawyers and advocates who ensure reproductive rights are protected in law as fundamental human rights for the dignity, equality, health, and well-being of every person.
The Center’s Federal Policy and Advocacy Team works to achieve this vision in two ways: (1) through legislative policy and advocacy with Congressional partners and national coalitions and (2) through administrative advocacy and legal expertise. The Team leads efforts to create and advance progressive public policies to strengthen reproductive rights and access, including promoting nationwide protections for access to abortion; safe and respectful maternal health care; assisted reproductive technologies like IVF; contraception; and other critical reproductive care. The Center spearheads a national campaign to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), which is federal legislation that creates a statutory right for health care providers to provide abortion care, and a corresponding right for their patients to receive that care, free from medically unnecessary restrictions that single out abortion and impede access.
The Team also works to ensure that federal agencies protect, respect, and fulfill the human right to health care by holding agencies accountable and promoting policy changes that advance access to reproductive health care.
My fellowship project is focused on federal religious refusal laws and access to comprehensive reproductive health care services in the United States. The United States has a troubling history of allowing religious refusal laws to be used to limit others’ rights to privacy and bodily autonomy, as well as the right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. The federal government should be held responsible for striking an appropriate balance between religious freedom and health care access that protects both individual rights and patient care. When that balance is not appropriately struck and health care providers refuse to provide reproductive health care based on religious beliefs, patients’ health, lives, and autonomy are endangered. Through rulemaking and other administrative actions, the prior administration used the guise of “advancing religious freedom” to undermine and weaken longstanding civil rights protections and improperly prioritize ideology over patient health and reproductive rights.
My fellowship project applies an administrative advocacy lens to address the harms of religious refusal laws, their impact on reproductive rights, and their systemic barriers to reproductive health care, building on the Center’s federal administrative work. Through my fellowship, I am working with the Center in engaging with the Biden-Harris administration to promote progressive policies that advance reproductive health care in the United States.
Q: How did your experiences before and during law school lead you to this project or public interest generally?
A: I strongly believe that access to reproductive health care is a fundamental human right. Every person has the right to make decisions about their reproductive life and choose if, when, and how to become a parent. Efforts to restrict abortion access disproportionately affect those who already face barriers to accessing health care — including women; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; those working to make ends meet; LGBTQI+ people; immigrants; young people; those living in rural communities; and people with disabilities. Access to respectful and nondiscriminatory reproductive health care, including contraception, abortion, and maternal health care, is essential to fulfilling that right, and a person may need any or all of these services in the course of their reproductive life.
It is this belief that led me to go to law school to advocate for broader, systemic changes to reproductive health care access in the United States. Throughout law school, I advocated for reproductive rights and economic justice through administrative advocacy, litigation, and policy at the local, state, and federal level. As the Co-Director of Penn Law If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, I worked with our Judicial Bypass Project, which assists young people in navigating judicial bypass hearings to access abortion care in Philadelphia without parental involvement, and organized programming for the law school community on the criminalization of pregnancy and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on access to abortion care in Pennsylvania.
In law school, I also had the opportunity to spend my 2L summer with the Center’s Federal Policy & Advocacy Team. During my internship, I drafted key sections of the Center’s comment on the Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act’s Health Care Rights Law (Section 1557) and examined the harms of the proposed regulatory change on women and the LGBTQI+ community. I had an incredible experience interning with the Federal Policy & Advocacy Team. As I’m beginning my public interest legal career, I am so grateful through my fellowship to have the opportunity to work with and learn from the passionate, innovative attorneys and advocates on the Team, who fight every day for a world where everyone has the ability to make decisions about their reproductive lives and has equitable access to reproductive health care services.
Q: Thus far, what accomplishment during your fellowship are you most proud of?
A: During my fellowship, I am most proud of the work that I have done to use administrative advocacy to try to address systemic inequities in reproductive health care access. I believe that engaging in notice and comment periods on proposed rules is an important way to build a public record and to highlight to agencies how proposed rules impact reproductive health care services, providers, and patients.
During the prior administration, I led in drafting a comment on behalf of the Center on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Proposed Updated Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination. Our comment urged the EEOC to withdraw the proposed updates to the Manual and raised concerns that the proposed updates did not strike a proper balance between religious freedom and protecting civil rights and would expose countless third parties to discrimination in the name of religion, especially impacting women and LGBTQI+ individuals.
More recently, I had the opportunity to be one of the primary drafters of our first comment in the Biden-Harris administration in support of the Department of Health and Human Services’ notice of proposed rulemaking that would end the harmful Trump-era policy known as the “domestic gag rule.” The Domestic Gag Rule targeted the Title X family planning program with regulations limiting access to reproductive health care services. The Title X program is the nation’s only dedicated family planning safety net, providing reproductive health care services to over four million people living on low incomes who are under- and uninsured. Our comment applauded the Administration’s move to end the domestic gag rule and restore access to Title X-funded services and the proposed rule’s emphasis on health equity.