Why Abortion Is an Important Issue for Students
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In 2021, more than 1.5 million college students enrolled at a Texas college or university. And when Texas Senate Bill 8 went into effect on Sept. 1, 2021, every single college student in the state lost the right to reproductive autonomy.
Access to reproductive services matters to college students. In 2014, nearly 7 in 10 abortion patients in the U.S. were between 18-29 years old. One in five abortion patients points to education or career reasons when choosing an abortion. And reproductive choice is a matter of educational equity.
But what can college students do to protect their reproductive rights?
Access to Reproductive Services in College Varies by State
For too many college students, the right to reproductive autonomy depends on where they go to college. "Many people do not consider that they may need access to an abortion when they are choosing a college," Anne-Marie Aimes Oelschlager, an adolescent gynecology expert at American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told BestColleges in an email. "I have had patients who have scrambled to find rides hundreds of miles from their college towns to be able to find an abortion provider."
Out of all U.S. states, California and Texas have the most college students — 2.71 million in California and 1.64 million in Texas. And the states take diametrically opposed approaches to reproductive rights. While California laws have increased access to reproductive services, Texas now has a de facto ban on abortion in the state.
Texas's new state law, SB 8, bans abortion after six weeks, which would be as soon as two weeks after a missed period based on a typical menstrual cycle length. A study from 2017 found that on average, people learn they're pregnant at 5.5 weeks. However, the study also showed that about 23% of pregnant people became aware of their pregnancy at 7 weeks or later.
The new law effectively bans abortion in Texas by putting a $10,000 bounty on the head of medical providers and anyone else who helps someone access abortion care.
Compare Texas's law with SB 24 in California. Passed in 2019, SB 24 guarantees abortion access at on-campus student health centers in the state's public colleges and universities. Similarly, a 2021 Washington state law says that student health plans that offer maternity care must also cover abortion services.
But college students in many other states encounter major barriers to accessing reproductive services.
California's law specifically points to the harm caused by limited access to clinics. The bill states: "Students seeking early pregnancy termination ... face prohibitively expensive travel, often without reliable means of transportation, to a clinic that may require hours of travel from their campus ... These financial and time burdens negatively impact academic performance and mental health.
Phili Villalobos, a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, pushed for the bill. "Logistically, it's really difficult for a lot of students to get off campus to go to an abortion clinic in time," Villalobos told Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.
Smith College professor Carrie Baker, currently researching a similar bill in Massachusetts, describes on-campus abortion access as "an educational equity issue, especially for low-income students and students of color."
But which law — Texas's SB 8 or California's SB 24 — will spread to more states? Within a month of SB 8 going into effect, eight other states have already discussed similar bills. So far, California remains the only state with a legal college student right to access this reproductive service.
Lack of Access Is Widespread
The lack of access to adequate reproductive health care has many contributing sources, including one that may be a surprise to some — medical schools.
In a 2005 survey, 17% of med schools reported that students received no formal training in abortion services. A 2020 follow-up survey found that 10% of med schools still did not train students in providing abortions.
Dr. Stephanie Ho experienced the lack of abortion training firsthand at the University of Arkansas. The med school brought in a guest lecturer to talk about abortion for 30 minutes. Outside of that, med students had to arrange their own training, often at a high personal cost.
Thanks to increasingly restrictive abortion laws, by 2019 Dr. Ho was one of only four physicians providing abortion services in Arkansas.
A lack of providers — and a shrinking number of clinics — also affects students.
College students who need family planning services may not find answers on campus. The University of Texas at Austin's University Health Services warns that health providers can offer counseling but not medical treatment.
In contrast, the University of California, Berkeley's University Health Services offers resources including on-campus family planning services and information on how to access a medication abortion on campus.
The Impact of Reproductive Autonomy on College Students
Students go to college for many different reasons. In a 2015 report by New America's Education Policy Program over 85% of college students surveyed said they enrolled to improve their employment opportunities, earn more money, and get a good job. And 61% said they went to college to make a better life for their children.
The ability to choose when to have a family also plays a major role in a college student's future. In one survey, 20% of abortion patients said that pregnancy would negatively affect their education, career, or other goals.
The right to choose affects educational outcomes. A 2019 study used data from 876 women — some of the women received abortions, while others were turned away and went on to give birth.
Comparing the outcomes of the two groups, the study found that women in both groups stayed in school at similar rates. But only 27% of the women denied an abortion earned a college degree, while 71% of those who received an abortion became college graduates.
Reproductive Autonomy as an Equity Issue
Access to reproductive rights is an equity issue that makes a big difference at the college level.
Compared to the general population, abortion patients are more likely to be people of color and come from a low-income household. In 2014, white patients made up 39% of all patients, while Black patients accounted for 28% and Latino/a patients 25%. (Editor's note: The degree of overlap between these groups is unknown, as it is unclear whether survey respondents could select more than one racial category.)
Three out of four abortion patients either fall below the poverty line or qualify as low income. For these patients, abortion isn't cheap. In 2014, first-trimester abortions cost around $500. And more than half of abortion patients had to pay for their procedure out of pocket, since many insurance plans — including Medicaid — do not cover abortion services.
People of color and low-income people are also less likely to hold a college degree. As of 2018, while 35% of white Americans hold a college degree, only about 25% of Black Americans and 18% of Hispanic Americans graduated college. (Editor's note: Information about the degree of overlap between these racial categories is not available.)
And according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, children from poorer families are less likely to go to college and less likely to earn a four-year degree than those from wealthier families.
Denying reproductive choice to people already facing higher education barriers only contributes to inequality and a lack of diversity in colleges.
How Students Can Fight for Reproductive Rights
What can students do to protect their reproductive autonomy? Students can advocate for their health centers to provide family planning services. They can petition their school to voice its support of reproductive choice. And they can ask whether their medical school trains future physicians how to counsel patients on reproductive choices and provide abortions.
College students need to think beyond campus, too. Because most colleges do not provide abortion services, students seek medical care in their community. Students can get involved with organizations like the Brigid Alliance, which offers travel support to people who cannot access abortion care in their local area.
At the state and national level, college students can advocate for laws and policies that increase access to abortion services. And students choosing out-of-state colleges can avoid states that restrict abortion rights.
Unfortunately, only 38% of women aged 13-44 live in a state supportive of abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute, while 58% live in states that are hostile or extremely hostile to reproductive autonomy. The people most impacted by abortion restrictions often don't have the privilege of choosing where they live.
By getting involved on campus and in their communities, college students can work to protect their rights and the rights of others.
Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.