Northeastern student invited to the White House to discuss reproductive rights with Kamala Harris

Group photo at the White House
Vice President Kamala Harris takes a photo with student leaders, Friday, October 14, 2022, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

When Ren Birnholz, a Northeastern fourth-year student, was invited to the White House to take part in a discussion of the ongoing and future impacts of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on reproductive rights, they had no idea what to expect. 

But Birnholz, a cultural anthropology and theater combined major set to graduate in the spring of 2023, had some thoughts, particularly about how the administration’s own messaging around abortion access since the decision gutting abortion protections has been inherently exclusionary, leaving out the transgender and gender nonconforming communities, they said. 

It’s an issue that hits close to home, as Birnholz, who is nonbinary and transgender, has developed close ties with those communities.

“Access to abortion is indisputably a women’s rights issue, but it is not only a women’s rights issue,” Birnholz told News@Northeastern. “Women have historically led the effort for abortion access, and it disproportionately impacts cisgender women, but we cannot forget that this issue also impacts members of the transgender and gender nonconforming communities.”

Headshot of Ren Birnholz
Northeastern student Ren Birnholz participated in a discussion forum about abortion rights put on by Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. on Friday. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“By failing to mention the transgender and gender-noncomforming community, it’s erasing the existence of people who can get pregnant, who have even more barriers against them in getting this care,” Birnholz added.

Birnholz flew to Washington, D.C., to take part in the discussions on Oct. 14, which served to explore ways of protecting reproductive freedoms in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Birnholz was one of 75 students selected to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris to provide input on the administration’s response to the national fallout of the Dobbs decision that saw some states enact abortion restrictions. 

Birnholz said many of the students were presidents or vice presidents of their respective student bodies, or who otherwise are involved in reproductive justice on their campuses. During the roundtable-style discussion with Harris, the students touched on a number of issues, including the prevalence of so-called crisis pregnancy centers on college campuses—organizations that often mislead pregnant people and dissuade them from seeking abortions. 

The students agreed on the need for the administration to issue a “do not follow directive,” Birnholz said, as it relates to Trump-era Title IX policies, which weakened cases and complaints brought by victims of sexual assault and added protections for those accused. The Biden administration has already proposed a major overhauling of its predecessor’s Title IX rules. 

Birnholz noted that students also pressured the administration to issue a directive in support of transgender youth athletes, and another supporting comprehensive sex education.

Naturally, Birnholz fashioned their own question for the administration, which they asked Maureen A. McLaughlin, senior advisor to the secretary of education and director of international affairs in the Department of Education, during a breakout session.

“Currently, the Biden administration only acknowledges that the overturning of Roe v. Wade has impacted women,” Birnholz said. “How will the Biden administration include transgender people, particularly transgender men and other individuals with the capacity to get pregnant, in their response and initiatives to provide access to abortion?”

The trip capped off several years of local activism that saw Birnholz rise into leadership positions at Northeastern. After they arrived on campus in 2019, Birnholz got involved with NU SHARE, the university’s Planned Parenthood-affiliated student group devoted to “sexual health advocacy, resources, and education,” and “OPEN,” the Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern. The collaboration helped spur Birnholz’s interest and engagement in sexual health advocacy work.

Ren Birnholz at the White House
Ren Birnholz at the White House

Eventually, Birnholz would become NU SHARE’s president. Birnholz has also worked closely with Northeastern’s LGBTQA Resource Center, giving workshops on gender affirmation products, among other topics. 

After Roe was overturned, Birnholz collaborated with staff from Northeastern University Health and Counseling to install a Plan B, or morning after pill, vending machine on campus. As of Tuesday, the vending machine, located in the Marino Atrium, is now available. The effort to more easily dispense emergency contraception on campuses comes as part of new legislation approved by Massachusetts lawmakers to increase abortion access and offer the contraceptive vending services.  

As a resident assistant in Boston, Birnholz has also helped bring sexual health pop-ups to campus, a convenient way for students to stock up on sexual health supplies. 

“Northeastern has been such an incredible partner these past few months,” Birnholz said. 

After two co-ops—one as a substitute teacher in Brookline Public Schools, another as the equity assistant at Boston Public Schools’ Office of Equity—Birnholz said their goal is to become a sexuality educator in the U.S. public school system. They plan to apply for Ph.D. programs in sexuality education. 

“The United States has a lot to reckon with in terms of its education system,” Birnholz said.

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