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Championing Health Care Equity and Justice

April 25, 2022

For Michelle Banker L’10, Director of Reproductive Rights and Health Litigation at the National Women’s Law Center, “reproductive healthcare is healthcare.”

Though Michelle Banker L’10 has been passionate about reproductive rights and healthcare equity since before law school, her path to becoming the Director of Reproductive Rights and Health Litigation at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) was not typical, direct, or easy.

“This is a dream job to me,” she said. “I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time.”

With a background in health-related public policy, Banker enrolled in law school with a keen interest in gaining familiarity with the legal elements of the field. As she learned more about the ways in which healthcare policy and civil rights intertwined, her interests expanded.

“Working on abortion rights, contraception rights, and health issues more broadly was always a passion of mine,” Banker said. “But I will say that I didn’t really know what my path was going to be while I was in law school.”

Tracing a Career Trajectory

As a student, Banker volunteered with the Penn Reproductive Rights Law Project, which is now known as If/When/How. That experience, plus her work in the Criminal Defense Clinic as a 3L, ultimately solidified that she wanted to advocate for rights and access to reproductive healthcare.

“The Criminal Defense Clinic was exceptionally meaningful for me,” Banker said. “It gave me so much perspective on social inequities. It also showed me how rewarding it is to do work that really impacts peoples’ lives and how law is such an important tool to accomplish that.”

Banker did not jump into reproductive rights advocacy right away, though. Instead, she spent a couple of years at a firm, then clerked for the Honorable Carol Bagley Amon in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. As she worked to pivot her career in a new direction, Banker was eager to engage in any work that would help her “get her foot in the door” of the small world of reproductive rights advocacy.

After clerking, she was thrilled to land a temporary, three-month research assistant position at NWLC, where she supported the reproductive rights and health team’s state policy advocacy. She also volunteered as a case manager for the D.C. Abortion Fund, which provides funding for individuals who are unable to afford abortion care. Working in direct services highlighted the many financial and logistical barriers people face when trying to obtain abortion care and reinforced Banker’s desire to use her law degree to dismantle those barriers.

At the end of her term at NWLC, Banker found a job practicing labor law, including wage and hour law, at a public interest law firm, where she stayed for three years before beginning her job search again. She applied widely and continued performing volunteer work, including by serving as a volunteer attorney focusing on reproductive health policy for the National Health Law Project. Finally, she heard that NWLC was looking for a litigator, so she jumped at the opportunity.

Reproductive Rights and Health Equity Litigation

Now, as the Director of Reproductive Rights and Health Litigation at NWLC, Banker oversees litigation on a broad range of issues related to reproductive rights and health equity, including combatting discrimination in healthcare and improving access not only to abortion but also to contraception, fertility care, and other pregnancy-related care. Throughout her work, Banker’s priority is to center the lived experiences of those disproportionately harmed by systemic barriers to care – particularly Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; LGBTQ+ individuals; people with disabilities; and those who live at the intersection of these identities.

According to Banker, one of the organization’s goals is to develop the law to “establish equality as a legal framework for protecting access to reproductive healthcare.”

Under Banker’s leadership, NWLC has brought multiple Administrative Procedure Act (APA) cases against the federal government and has focused on developing the law under the Affordable Care Act’s nondiscrimination provision. One such APA case challenges a Trump Administration attempt to roll back healthcare protections under that provision in a way that threatens reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare. In that case, the NWLC represents a range of clients including an abortion fund, clinics providing gender-affirming and OB-GYN care, transgender rights groups, and a transgender individual. Banker explained that this type of intersectional collaboration between advocacy groups is typical in her work and key to achieving equitable legal goals.

For Banker, one of the most difficult aspects of her job is facing the constant onslaught of actions that threaten access to reproductive rights and healthcare equity.

“Reproductive rights are really under attack. Every day, we learn something new on the news that is heart wrenching,” Banker said. “You have to pick up and keep going. Often it’s not just heart wrenching — it’s something we have to do something about. We have to respond. The work can be relentless, and you have to keep pushing yourself, even when it feels really hard to do that or when you’re tired.”

Penn Carey Law Alumni Network

In her work, Banker frequently works alongside other Law School alums. Her co-counsel on the APA case against the Trump Administration healthcare protection rollbacks is Litigation Director at Harvard Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation Kevin Costello L’01; Banker also collaborated on this matter with two of her classmates, Marsha Chien L’10 of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and Omar Gonzalez-Pagan L’10 of Lambda Legal, whose organizations each brought separate challenges to the same regulation.

In another matter, Banker is working as co-counsel with Noel Leon L’13 of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP to represent a class of plaintiffs in a suit against Aetna and its policies on LGBTQ+ people’s access to fertility benefits.

Despite the challenges her work brings, Banker is enthusiastic to be able to advocate for reproductive rights and healthcare equity. Moreover, she acknowledged that her ability to pivot in her career was made possible due to privilege she feels fortunate to have had, as she recognizes that not everyone can spend time volunteering or afford a decrease in pay. In reflecting on her journey, Banker extended ardent gratitude to Associate Dean for Equity & Justice and Chief Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Officer Arlene Rivera Finkelstein for aiding her through a difficult career transition years after she had graduated from the Law School.

“Arlene was a godsend — she was really such a mentor during the process. I was so impressed that, as an alum, I had that support from the Law School,” Banker said. “It’s hard to make a change, but if there’s any way that my story can help people who want to make a change feel empowered to do so, I really want that to be the case.”

Finkelstein praised Banker’s determination and persistence.

“Michelle’s relentless pursuit of her passion is so inspiring,” said Finkelstein. “Her path was not easy, and it was sometimes discouraging, but she allowed her goals to give her strength and she never gave up. It is precisely this dedication and persistence that make her an exceptional advocate.”

Banker also co-counseled with Emily Nestler C’00 L’05, then with the Center for Reproductive Rights and now at the Department of Justice, and collaborated with Genevieve Scott, L’09, also at the Center for Reproductive Rights, on other APA challenges to Trump administration regulations targeting reproductive health care.

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