Here’s How New York College Students Helped Expand Medication Abortion Access Statewide

All SUNY and CUNY campuses will soon be required to provide access to medication abortion, either through a provider on campus or a referral. Here's how college students helped push the legislation over the top.
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Published on May 17, 2023
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  • New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill that will require public universities to provide access to medication abortion drugs.
  • The legislation will extend to all 89 campuses, including 37 community colleges, in the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems.
  • The Reproductive Justice Collective, a student-founded advocacy group, helped lead the efforts for the bill.

When Barnard College student Niharika Rao founded the Reproductive Justice Collective, a student-based reproductive health and justice advocacy organization, their main goal was to bring medication abortion access to the private, all-women's campus in New York City.

In October 2022, Barnard College became one of the first private colleges to offer abortion pills. But Rao realized they needed to do more, so they took their advocacy to Albany, New York, where they worked with state lawmakers to increase access to abortion medication.

In less than a year, the combined efforts of Rao, the Reproductive Justice Collective, and state lawmakers paid off when New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed Senate Bill S1213B requiring that all 89 campuses in the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems provide this access to their students.

"This policy is really about ending the continual exception of very basic healthcare that happens in these supposed abortion-friendly states that don't provide access to it on campus when they provide far riskier other types of healthcare," Rao told BestColleges.

The motivating factors behind their recent advocacy and the legislation passed by New York was the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and its potential impacts, including increasing the number of people seeking abortions at the state's health clinics, Rao said.

"[We wanted to] respond to that in a way that actually led to increased access for folks in New York and pushed back against this perceived complacency that because abortion is legal in New York, it'll be chill," they said. "But, access really doesn't work like that."

New York State Assembly Member Harvey Epstein sponsored the assembly version of the legislation.

"In our public colleges, especially our SUNYs, where the local healthcare provider can be 60, 70, 80 miles away, [and] students really wouldn't have easy access to medication abortion on campus," he told BestColleges.

Epstein sponsored similar legislation in 2019 and 2021; those bills would have required just SUNY institutions "to offer abortion by medication techniques at all on-campus student health centers." The successful 2023 legislation expanded access to both SUNY and CUNY schools.

"I expanded the bill to include CUNYs because I thought it was critical, especially as we've seen so much attack on Planned Parenthoods, that they have medical facilities on campus [and] could provide access to medication abortion," Epstein said.

Student Advocacy Helped Advance Bill

Since its start at Barnard College, the Reproductive Justice Collective has expanded across the SUNY, CUNY, and New York University (NYU) systems. Once the legislation was introduced to bring medication abortion access to campuses, the organization worked to raise awareness about the need for it.

"We kind of led the campaign, which looks like developing bill language, organizing across various campuses to show students' support, [and] having lobbying meetings with legislators," Rao said. "I also led government relations directly by coordinating with various legislators and working on rep[resentative] concerns that may be around the bill."

Epstein says the students involved were "instrumental" in helping the bill move through the state government.

"It was really helpful to work with student advocates. I really think it's critical for people who are impacted by these decisions to really be involved in these campaigns," he said. "Having the Reproductive Justice Collective at the table and helping us rally and do press conferences and social media … helped us move it forward."

Student activists were also heavily involved in getting legislation passed in California and Massachusetts that would bring medication abortion access to public campuses. Rao says that they have been in communication with students from both states and others who are trying to get similar legislation passed.

"[We are] very much in coalition with them developing that momentum across various states," they said.

What's Next for Abortion Access At New York Colleges?

Colleges included under the new law in New York will have to either contract directly with authorized individuals who can prescribe abortion pills or refer students to providers authorized to prescribe abortion medication by Aug. 1, according to the bill's text.

Rao says the Reproductive Justice Collective has been working with SUNY and CUNY systems and campuses to make implementation as equitable as possible. Epstein says that both chancellors are "on board" and "very excited" to expand reproductive rights on campus.

"One of our summer projects is to coordinate and work across various universities, both public —around billing, implementation — and private — around mobilizing campaigns," Rao said.

One school the Reproductive Justice Collective is focusing its efforts on is NYU, which announced in February that it is considering dispensing medication abortion drugs in the campus pharmacy.

The group is also working with Colgate University and Hobart & William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, which are farther away from local clinics that offer medication abortion services.

Additionally, in 2024, New Yorkers will get to vote on a state Equal Rights Amendment, a step to amending the New York State Constitution to protect abortion rights, according to the governor's office.

While other states are repealing and restricting access to abortion and reproductive care, Epstein says New York will not only be a place that has legal abortion care but provides access to those who need it the most.

"What's a right without access? You can have a right to something, but if you don't have access to it, it's sometimes meaningless, right?" he said. "This is a right with access. The more access people have, the better. So that's exactly what we're trying to do here."