New York City-based Barnard College officially commits to offering the abortion pill on campus starting in fall 2023, joining The University of California, Berkeley—which has offered medication abortions since fall 2020—as one of first colleges in the country to do so. According to the Guttmacher Institute, people between the ages of 20-24 account for about a third of all abortions in the U.S., while people in their 20s account for half. As an abortion desert continues to grow across the Midwest, colleges and universities are doing what they can to ensure campuses provide access to reproductive care for their students.
“We believe that [medication abortion] is a fundamental type of reproductive care that folks should be able to have access to,” said Niharika Rao, a student organizer who led the movement for abortion pill availability at Barnard. “The only reason they don’t have access to it is because abortion care has been so successfully exceptionalized and politicized.”
The University of California, Berkeley, has offered medication abortions for pregnancies up to 10 weeks since 2020, after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in 2019 requiring California state colleges and universities to provide abortion pills on campus by Jan. 1, 2023. Massachusetts also enacted a law over the summer that will require public universities to submit a plan by November 2023 to provide medication abortions on campus. Advocates in New York are now fighting for a similar bill that would require all student health centers on college and university campuses to offer medication abortion free of charge. For Barnard, officials have said that the college’s health insurance plan would cover the abortion pills, and an emergency fund would be available for students without insurance or for those who do not want to use their parents’ insurance policies.
“We saw a vast increase in protesters and antis at city abortion clinics,” Rao said. “That became one of our other motivating factors. You shouldn’t have to be harassed when you’re trying to access basic health care. By providing access to pills on campus, it’s not just directly helping students, but it’s decreasing the load on New York City’s abortion care system as well.”
Rao began organizing for medication abortion access over two years ago with Reproductive Justice Collective—a coalition of students and youth organizers. They began demanding access to the abortion pill on New York City campuses to counteract the barriers to reproductive health care that especially impacted first-generation and low-income students who often couldn’t travel to the downtown Planned Parenthood or couldn’t get their services covered by student health insurance.
Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, students had begun advocating for this access, anticipating the downfall of abortion rights in 2018 after former President Donald Trump nominated two anti-abortion extremists to the Supreme Court. As conservative states like Texas began implementing restrictive six-week bans and Trump nominated a third anti-abortion extremist to the Supreme Court, the need for protected accessibility became more urgent.
“I think part and parcel of that proactive strategy is recognizing that rights and access is not perfect in New York, geographical cost barriers exist, racial barriers still exist,” Rao said. “It’s really a time to push back even in so-called liberal and safe spaces.”
Student organizers were also motivated to increase reproductive rights access for patients traveling from out of state where abortion was banned or severely limited. According to Rao, the wait times at New York City clinics have already massively increased, along with the demand on local abortion funds. Rao wants to continue working with Barnard to make sure they implement policies that will provide funding for peer support services, including trained abortion doulas.
“Many of our collective members come to Columbia and Barnard from various other states like Texas, North Carolina, Kansas, who are facing the reality that they don’t currently have [or have limited] abortion access in their home state,” Rao said. “As part of our organizing, we made clear repeatedly to the administration how important this would be to reify and create access in their temporary home.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, colleges in conservative states have already begun announcing that they will comply with their respective state’s abortion bans. Last month, the University of Idaho sent an email to all employees saying that “promoting abortion” was against the law and they could be charged with a misdemeanor or felony and lose their job.
“The fear is very real, and people are uncertain about what they can say and what they can do, especially when new laws are passed that are restrictive,” said Tamara Marzouk, the director of abortion access at Advocates for Youth. “We’ve seen students really fear even sharing accurate information with one another because they’re not sure about what might happen or how their university might respond.”
Marzouk hopes that Barnard College’s new policy will begin a snowball effect for private universities and colleges to implement similar policies. A 2018 study estimated that over 300 students at California’s public universities sought medication abortion each month and found that many faced obstacles to off-campus care, including cost, travel time, and waiting for appointments.
“Colleges and universities have a tremendous responsibility to show up for their students and to provide accurate information and comprehensive care whenever possible,” said Marzouk. “Students are really leveraging their collective power to demand change. I think it would be amazing if administrations across the country took their lead and went ahead and started implementation.”