As a lawyer, author, and bioethicist Katie Watson ’92 examines the relationship between the body and the state

Katie Watson ’92 wears multiple hats. In addition to her legal education at NYU Law, she has also trained as a volunteer doula, an improv performer, and a medical ethicist. And she has built a career that allows her to combine all of these interests and skills: As an associate professor at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Watson teaches bioethics, medical humanities, health law, and seminars in “medical improv” to improve doctor-patient communication.

Katie Watson portrait
Katie Watson '92

“There’s paper and money law, and there’s blood and guts law. I was always drawn to the blood and guts," Watson says, noting that even before she found her particular career path, “I wanted my specialty to be birth, death, and sex, and I was always very interested in the relationship between bodies and the state.”

Those were the subjects under examination in her teaching and her ethics work with physicians who perform abortions, which led Watson to write Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, & Politics of Ordinary Abortion, published earlier this year. “As a guide to the various ways of thinking about abortion, Scarlet A is readable and respectful—and therefore, in its own quiet way, revolutionary,” reviewer Jennifer Szalai wrote in The New York Times.

Watson credits several of her NYU Law professors with laying the foundations of her career in bioethics and her interest in reproductive rights—in particular, Sylvia Law ’68, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry; Peggy Cooper Davis, John S.R. Shad Professor of Lawyering and Ethics, whose Family and the State course Watson took; and the late Thomas Stoddard ’77, founder of Lambda Legal.

As a recipient of the Harriet Pilpel/Planned Parenthood Fellowship within the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, Watson interned in her third year with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and contributed to an amicus brief in Casey v. Pennsylvania, a landmark US Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld Roe v. Wade as well as as several Pennsylvania provisions restricting abortion access. She also interned with a lawyer who was a clinical ethics consultant at Montefiore Hospital, working on a project in the Obstetrics Unit.

“She was a wonderful student, passionately committed to public interest work, and also deeply intellectual,” says Law, who is also the co-director of the Hays Program. “She always had a great sense of humor, great warmth, and a great interest in and ability to connect with people.”

That ability to connect helped propel Watson down new paths after law school. While working as an appellate public defender for prisoners on death row at San Quentin State Prison, Watson helped create the background materials for expert psychiatrists testifying on an appeal, interviewing friends and family members of death row inmates across the country in an attempt to put together intergenerational portraits of mental illness, drug abuse, and sexual and physical abuse. “Even then, I was drawn to the medicine within law, and the storytelling in both,” she notes.

At the same time, Watson also trained to be a doula, helping low-income women without partners deliver their babies at the San Francisco General Hospital.  “Being a doula was a way to be in the room where the life-altering event of birth is happening,” Watson says, “because supporting choice means supporting birth as well.”

After moving to Chicago to work at the Legal Assistance Foundation, Watson pursued a fellowship in in clinical medical ethics at the University of Chicago Medical School and another fellowship in medical humanities at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She took an improv class as a way to improve her litigation skills and meet people in her new city, and surprised herself, she says, by “completely falling in love with it.” Watson continued studying, performing and even teaching improv as a side interest even as she became one of the founding faculty members of Northwestern’s master’s program in medical humanities and bioethics.

“I thought of my life in theater as completely separate from my academic work,” Watson says, “and then I had the epiphany that…there’s a lot we learn in improvisational theater training that could be useful to my medical students in their [doctor-patient] encounters.” In 2002, Watson developed a seminar on what she calls “medical improv,” which was such a success that other schools soon began to reach out to her to help them replicate the course.

Watson’s background in improv also helped as she conducted research for Scarlet A, gathering the testimonies of people who have had abortions or provided them. “When patients and healthcare professionals told me stories of their experience that didn’t match what I thought they would say based on cultural master plots I had internalized, improv had trained me to see that disjuncture and follow what the person in front of me was saying rather than project onto them what I thought they would or should say,” Watson says.

Watson’s former professor Law praises her work in Scarlet A, saying that it is crucial to tell women’s stories of “ordinary” abortion. “There is almost no mainstream media recognition that abortion is the most common surgical procedure in the United States,” Law says, adding that she has “given this book to more people than any other book I’ve ever gifted—and everyone loves it.”

With a newly empty seat on the Supreme Court, both the left and right are considering the potential that Roe v. Wade could be overturned after a new justice is confirmed. Watson’s book, however, refocuses the conversation on abortion as a personal and ethical issue, rather than a public and political one. “Abortion is a constitutional right. It has been a constitutional right for 45 years and it must remain one—it is central to women’s equality,” says Watson. “But the public conversation about abortion has become so toxic that it has actually silenced the private conversation between friends and family members. And this cultural crisis is part of what has generated our legal crisis. I hope [this book] inspires people to…share their thoughts with each other and make it a topic that’s not so taboo.”

Posted August 20, 2018