When colleges provide contraception and abortion services to students, they promote women's educational success — but they also fuel a contentious debate.

The Value of Promoting Reproductive Health on College Campuses


  • California will be the first state to provide medical abortions on college campuses.
  • A lack of access to contraception and abortion impacts some women's academic success.
  • Underprivileged students are more likely to drop out due to unwanted pregnancy.
  • College courses on reproductive health promote equity and reproductive justice.

Last year, as conservative states moved to restrict abortion access, California took an opposing track: By 2023, the state will require all public colleges and universities to provide students with abortion medication upon request.

California is the first state to require campus health centers to offer medical abortion, a two-pill process legally approved to terminate pregancy within the first 10 weeks. By targeting college campuses, the state legislature acknowledges the major impact of reproductive health services on female college students.

“Around the world, key regional human rights courts and United Nations bodies are increasingly recognizing reproductive autonomy and access to reproductive healthcare as basic human rights.”

More than half of women who have an abortion are in their 20s. Two studies conducted by a reproductive health research group found that hundreds of University of California and California State University students seek medical abortion each month.

At some U.S. colleges, abortion services are included in student health insurance. At others, including many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which often have religious foundations, both stigma and state law can limit vulnerable students' options.

While the debate between anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists rages on, the abortion rate hit a historic low in 2017.

More Agency Leads to Better Educational Outcomes for Women

A lack of childcare can keep women from making it to class, completing assignments on time, and generally succeeding academically. While Title IX protects pregnant and parenting students from discrimination, it does not provide for their extra needs.

For female college students, pregnancy can jeopardize their future. Studies indicate that many women who have had abortions did so for the sake of continuing their education. The expansion of reproductive health access on college campuses promises to support women's education and, by extension, uphold their Title IX civil rights.

History has shown that legal access to contraception and abortion leads to improved educational and economic outcomes for women. A 2007 study estimated that by 2000, more than 250,000 women over the age of 30 had been able to earn a bachelor's degree as a result of access to contraception.

Reproductive Justice Promotes Equity in Education

Recent federal regulations threaten to cut funding to family-planning clinics used by many low-income women — such as Planned Parenthood — if they provide patients with abortion referrals. The politics of reproductive health means well-off students are more likely to have access to contraception and abortion, a major point of inequity in women's healthcare.

When college campuses withhold reproductive resources, higher-income students can seek them elsewhere. But women from marginalized communities may lack the guidance or means to do the same. This disparate access to reproductive healthcare bolsters existing inequities by often preventing low-income women facing unwanted pregnancy from achieving their educational goals.

“Reproductive justice is a positive approach that links sexuality, health, and human rights to social justice movements by placing abortion and reproductive health issues in the larger context of the well-being and health of women, families, and communities.”

Not all female students can access abortion services off campus or afford medical bills. In some cases, outside abortion providers may not accept student or private insurance. Without a safe option, some women take a harrowing risk. The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 5-13% of maternal deaths each year can be attributed to unsafe abortion.

Community colleges, a primary path to higher education for many low-income students, witness a higher rate of unintended pregnancies than postsecondary institutions as a whole. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, 1 in 10 female community college students drops out due to unplanned pregnancy.

Bringing Reproductive Health Courses to Campus

Reproductive justice is an important subject on campus and in college curricula. The social, cultural, and political contexts of reproduction is a central focus in fields like sociology, gender studies, and law. There is also a dedicated certificate program — the first of its kind in the U.S. — called the Five College Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice Program.

On-campus offerings equip students to understand, use, and advance their reproductive rights. Some colleges, including those in the Five College Consortium (Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst), offer a rich array of reproductive health-centered courses and campus events.

“Despite their radical beginnings, HBCUs are frequently socially conservative. … On-campus women's healthcare can feel like an experience preserved from decades ago.”

Other schools, however, have been slower to respond to the demand for reproductive health education and support on campus. Although women of color introduced the concept of reproductive justice, colleges that predominantly serve students of color are the furthest behind in terms of bringing reproductive justice to classes and campus clinics.

Some HBCUs are reproductive health deserts, failing to provide students with the services and care they need. This reproductive justice gap at HBCUs and other colleges that serve students of color further entrenches racial disparities in both education access and graduation rates.

When colleges promote reproductive justice, they promote educational equity. Comprehensive sexual health education and resources not only help students avoid unintended pregnancies, but also greatly increase their chances of reaching graduation.

Reproductive Health and Justice Resources

National Center for Transgender Equality

A nonprofit social equality organization that provides resources and support for transgender individuals, including answers to questions about healthcare.

National Institute for Reproductive Health

Reproductive health policy advocates that partner with state and local organizations to shape legislation on abortion and contraception, conduct research, and advance the national conversation on reproductive justice.

National Women's Health Network

Consumer advocacy network that investigates laws and advances policy around women's healthcare options.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Long-running nonprofit organization that provides sexual healthcare throughout the U.S.

SisterSong

A national collective of women of color with training, professional development, and policy collaboration in the interest of reproductive justice.


Feature Image: Tim Boyle / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America