By Sophia Harrison
As a new freshman at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017, I was required to undergo a week-long orientation. Most of the activities involved icebreakers and course overviews, but one presentation in particular lingers in my mind. On the fifth day of orientation, we took a tour of the health center to inform us of our options for contraceptives, STD testing, free counseling, and helplines for domestic abuse, sexual abuse, depression, and anxiety. At the time, I remember a student in my group asking about the extent of services provided for students seeking to terminate a pregnancy, but my freshman self was more preoccupied with what I would be eating for lunch that day to consider if it was standard practice for student health centers to provide abortions.
Fast forward two years later and a person’s right to access reproductive health care is being stripped away across the country through both statewide abortion bans and a Trump-led attack on the Title X family planning program. But there is one bright spot: Senate Bill 24, the “College Student Right to Access Act,” which was recently approved by California’s state senate education committee. If signed into law, this bill would allow students of the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems to access medication abortion at student health centers on campus for the first time. This puts California in a unique position to become the first public university system to require abortion access for its students—at a time when it matters most.
For those who may not know, medication abortion is a safe, nonsurgical form of abortion that involves taking two pills containing different drugs: mifepristone and misoprostol. Mifepristone (brand name Mifeprex) is taken first, often in the presence of a physician, and then misoprostol (brand name Cytotec) is taken up to 48 hours later, usually at home. When taken according to that schedule, mifepristone and misoprostol are 99% effective in terminating a pregnancy up to ten weeks. After the pills have been administered, the patient may be required to follow up with their physician within two weeks to confirm the pregnancy has ended without any complications.
Medication abortion is an attractive alternative for many people, including students, as it is a nonsurgical procedure that can terminate an early pregnancy safely and privately. The UC and CSU systems have led the nation in promoting access to family planning services and our student health centers are equipped to provide contraceptives and gynecological exams. However, a significant barrier to care still exists when abortion services are not available on campus. Fake clinics that substitute anti-abortion shaming for real services significantly outnumber real clinics even in a ‘blue’ state like California, making it difficult and expensive to locate and get to a real clinic. When medication abortion is available at a trusted clinic on campus, however, students don’t have to choose between missing class, increasing expenses, finding a real clinic, or forgoing an important medical decision.
The NWHN has been an early and active supporter of SB 24 and its predecessor bill since it was first introduced by California Senator Connie Leyva. As a women’s health organization, the NWHN is committed to supporting legislation that limits the number of obstacles that people must face to obtain the reproductive and sexual health care that is right for them, and SB 24 would advance this goal in more ways than one.
Current research shows that about 1,038 students across UC and CSU campuses seek abortion care each month, but the closest abortion clinics are around 30 minutes away for 68% of public university campuses. When students do reach these off-campus clinics, it is not guaranteed that they will accept student’s health insurance to cover the cost of abortion, and even if they do, anonymity may not be an option for students on family health care plans. If students do not have the option to use health insurance to cover the procedure, the average out-of-pocket cost of a medication abortion at a nearby off-campus clinic in 2017 was $604, which is not a viable option for most student budgets. In these cases, UC and CSU health centers are in a better position to provide medication abortion under student health insurance plans at a lower cost and greater convenience. By passing SB 24, studies predict that campus health centers would be able to provide about 519 medication abortions each month, which would then eliminate the need for students to make multiple trips to off-campus health clinics, reduce the overall medical and logistical costs of the procedure, and keep student medical decisions fully confidential.
At a time when so many states are choosing to take care options away from women, California state legislators are positioned to lead the fight to expand access to reproductive care. While I am no longer a freshman, I am still just as deserving of the assurances that reproductive health services are readily available to me as a student on a California campus. For students like myself, the approval of this bill would mean there is hope in the national fight to secure a person’s right to make decisions about their own body. It would further validate the work reproductive health advocates do, and reinforce the idea that, even nowadays, political rhetoric won’t stand in the way of comprehensive access to reproductive healthcare and bodily autonomy.
Sophia Harrison is the NWHN Summer Policy Intern