Offering abortion pills on campus could eliminate boundaries to access, students say

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images/STOCK

(NEW YORK) — Colleges and universities offering the abortion pill on campus could help reduce barriers to abortion care access, even in states that currently have protections for this care, students advocating for abortion rights say.

Students in California and New York told ABC News that increasing the points of access to care, such as requiring schools to provide medication abortions, would likely go a long way toward lightening the burden on clinics that are being overwhelmed with patients traveling from other states.

A 2019 law signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom will require state colleges and universities to provide abortion pills on campus starting on Jan. 1. This summer, Massachusetts also enacted a law requiring public universities to submit a plan for providing medication abortions on campus by November 2023.

A similar bill is in the works in New York State. It would require that all student health centers on college and university campuses in the state offer medication abortion services free of charge.

The University of California, Berkeley, already offers medication abortions at its student health center for pregnancies up to 10 weeks. Recently, Barnard College, a women’s only school in New York, announced it would offer medication abortions starting in Fall 2023.

The decision at Barnard came after over two years of pressure from student groups on campus, led by a group called the Reproductive Justice Collective.

The RJC found a need for access to abortion pills on campus for three main reasons: overwhelmed New York abortion clinics; the high cost of abortion care; and long travel time to reach clinics off campus, Niharika Rao, a student at Barnard and activist with the RJC, told ABC News in an interview.

Rao said that clinics in New York are overwhelmed and have long wait times, with many patients coming from Pennsylvania and Ohio for care. Long wait times can often lead to patients needing more complicated and expensive abortion care.

Medication abortion is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for up to 10 weeks into pregnancy, but some studies have shown it is an effective method of abortion up to 11 weeks. 

The closest Planned Parenthood clinic to Barnard’s campus is a 40-minute train ride away, according to Rao.

Rao said many students hope that abortion services at Barnard will be subsidized by the university and be more affordable to students than care at clinics unaffiliated with the school.

“If students who are obviously going to Planned Parenthoods now are able to access this type of care on their campus, then we’re hoping that reduces the load on [New York’s] clinics. It also hopefully reduces the funding pressure on our abortion funds,” Rao said.

The RJC is also advocating for medication abortion to be available on campus for students at other New York schools including Columbia University, New York University and CUNY system schools.

Even in states like New York that protect abortion rights, “very real barriers to care and access still exist, despite the fact that abortion is very much legal. And if we want to be a sort of pro-choice, abortion friendly state, then we have to reconcile and deal with those barriers,” Rao said.

When campuses require that a student go off campus for care, that often means they miss school, miss assignments, have to pay for travel, have to miss jobs or internships, according to Tamara Marzouk, director of abortion access at Advocates for Youth, a non-profit that helps youth, including the RJC, organize around reproductive justice issues.

While California is a state that protects abortion rights, students told ABC News that similar barriers to abortion care exist there as well.

Abortion care being offered on campuses would especially make a difference for undergraduate students who may not have local providers they trust or a means of transportation to get them to off-campus services, MacKenna Rawlins, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, and the vice president of external affairs for the school’s Graduate and Professional Student Association, told ABC News.

That being said, Rawlins said she has not seen a lot of student activism surrounding abortion care on her campus after Roe fell, which she largely attributes to the perceived “safety net” of living in California, where there are protections for the right to abortion.

Lauren Adams, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, told ABC News that she feels supported by her university but also recognizes her responsibility to demand more protections and fight for women in other states where the right to abortion is being taken away.

Student in nearly 30 states staged protests earlier this month, demanding their universities step in and protect their reproductive rights, months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending federal protections for abortion rights.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.