You are a college student. You balance academics, a whole host of extracurriculars and a job to fund your education. Then, you find out you are pregnant. You decide to terminate the pregnancy for any number of valid reasons, and you head to your campus health center to obtain a medication abortion: a simple, non-invasive, two-pill procedure that can be administered by a nurse-practitioner. But you learn that this service is not offered. Instead, you are forced to undergo mandatory counseling and a series of complicated referrals. You must take time off from class or work to travel, sometimes for hours, to the nearest off-campus abortion provider. Throughout this unnecessarily lengthy process, you face economic, emotional and academic burdens to what should have been a logistically easy medical decision. This is the reality of college students all across California, as well as nationally. It is a reality that we, Students United for Reproductive Justice at UC Berkeley, or SURJ, are aiming to change.
After hearing student stories like this, SURJ launched a campaign in spring 2016 to enable the UC Berkeley University Health Services to become the first college health center in the country to provide medication abortion. What started as an idea evolved into grassroots activism. Our message spread through campus by means of social media and an on-campus presence. We gathered more than 1,000 student signatures in support of the campaign in one week alone. We authored bills in support of the procedure’s implementation, and they unanimously passed in both the undergraduate- and graduate-student representative bodies. Having gained momentum, we were able to meet with various arms of campus administration, including University Health Services directors and the UC Berkeley chancellor, for ongoing conversations on the feasibility of this project. Throughout fall 2016, we were told that a major challenge to our goal would be the security concerns associated with being the first university in the nation to make this choice, so our student group applied for and obtained a six-figure grant to pay for these costs. We were told that this was too niche a cause and subsequently circulated a professor letter in support, which was signed by almost 150 professors. However, even after all this, the administration told us implementing medication abortion would not be possible because of the potential risks.
We were incredibly disappointed. It is frustrating to spend countless hours researching, mobilizing and meeting with key campus players to have student will ultimately disregarded. In a political moment in which reproductive rights seem to be in a constant state of regression rather than progression, we saw this as another way the healthcare needs of vulnerable populations were being ignored. Abortion patients are disproportionately low-income and people of color. The epidemic of sexual violence across university campuses has led to a plethora of survivors of sexual assault who may seek abortion as part of their post-sexual assault care. Universities are constantly using issues of diversity and sexual assault in public relations campaigns. Now is the time for them to actually achieve equitable access to healthcare for their marginalized students.
Fortunately, we are now honored and privileged to announce that there is a way to get one step closer to this equitable access. On March 17, state Sen. Connie Leyva introduced SB 320, named the “College Student Right to Access Act.” This groundbreaking piece of legislation would require all California institutions of higher education to provide medication abortion if they have an on-campus medical center, as well as mandate student health insurance plans cover medication abortion. We were informed that this bill was directly inspired by the work we’re doing. This bill would make history as the first of its kind and would establish college campuses as a new frontier for reproductive rights that include abortion. We hope that after this passage of SB 320, other states will be inspired to introduce similar legislation to improve college-student abortion access nationwide.
When one in three women will seek an abortion in their lifetime and when a majority of people who seek an abortion are under the age of 25, it is essential that colleges provide adequate, comprehensive and easily accessible reproductive healthcare to all of their students. This includes medication abortion. No student should have to choose between access to time-sensitive, constitutionally protected reproductive healthcare and their classes, their work and, ultimately, their future.
We believe that activism works. We believe that when there is a problem worth fixing or an idea worth pursuing, it is the job of activists to make that happen. We are grateful for the incredible support we’ve had on this campus from students, professors and some administrators who enabled and empowered us to continue working on what started as a rather wild and seemingly impossible idea. Looking forward, we will be devoting our whole selves to insuring the passage of SB 320 by coordinating rallies, lobby days, social media campaigns and legislator contact efforts with the enormous number of California students who are equally dedicated to making sure that every college student has the absolute ability to not just make choices about their bodies, but actually access those choices. We encourage everyone to vocally support SB 320, and never to doubt students’ ability to make change.
Adiba Khan, Marandah Field-Elliot, Phoebe Abramowitz, Kaitlyn Trevino, and Elizabeth Wells, Directors and Members of Students United for Reproductive Justice, UC Berkeley’s pro-choice reproductive justice student organization.