These Student Activists Describe How They're Revolutionizing Abortion Access On Campus

by Lani Seelinger
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The future of reproductive rights across the U.S. might look a little dim, but there's one place where there's cause for optimism. California could require the medication abortion pills be available on all of its public college campuses if SB320 passes in the next couple of weeks, and it's largely the work of a group of student activists that got the bill to where it is.

"The point of a student health center is to support students in being able to complete their academics in a supportive environment, and a huge part of that is reproductive health care — no one is really debating that," student activist Phoebe Abramowitz tells Bustle. However, a small group of students at the University of California-Berkeley had started hearing that one particular element of that was missing: access to medication abortion on campus.

If you push really hard for things and you’re not scared to be annoying to the people in power, you can get stuff done.

“Being in Berkeley, I just expected that it would be very easy, there would be no issues in accessing care," says Adiba Khan, a recently graduated activist who's now working full-time on the effort to get the bill passed. She tells Bustle that students in need of abortions, particularly medication abortions within the first 10 weeks of a pregnancy, "were faced with mostly logistical and bureaucratic hurdles that ended up having serious consequences on their academic performance, finances, and also just their emotional well-being."

This struck the students as unnecessary because of the safety and efficacy of the procedure being sought. Medication abortion is the process by which a woman can terminate her pregnancy by taking a series of pills within the first 10 weeks of her pregnancy. According to an Advancing New Standards In Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) report, it's a safe and efficient way to have an abortion, and based on their finances, facilities, and staff capabilities, it would be possible for all University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) campuses to provide medication abortions to their students.

When the student group at Berkeley started to bring it up to university authorities, though, they ran into roadblocks.

"They basically told us that this wasn't possible, that it wasn't going to happen, due to politics," says Marandah Field-Elliot, another recent graduate who is now working with Khan. "It feels really negligent that the universities don't provide this health care service just because of how the right has politicized it."

After the Women's Foundation of California reached out to them in an effort to help their cause, though, the whole effort took off.

"It went from like three people at Berkeley to this full out, statewide campaign," Khan tells Bustle. One of the most important people to jump on board, then, was Sen. Connie Leyva, who introduced the bill in the Senate — where it passed earlier this year.

Sen. Leyva saw a concrete need — an ANSIRH report showed that over 500 students on UC and CSU campuses a month seek medication abortions, and the 10-week window in which to get them is a very short one — and therefore a concrete way to help students in California. The process of bringing people over to her side, though, hasn't always been a simple one, as she tells Bustle.

"This is a wholesale change with how things are done when it comes to medicated abortions. When you change something, it is always difficult," she says. "But as I’ve said to people, this will be the new normal. In five years. In 10 years, people will look back and say, 'Oh wow, they didn’t used to offer medicated abortion?'"

Anything that allows you to make a better decision about your own life, we consider to be a good thing.

Both Sen. Leyva and the student activists are optimistic about the bill's chances of passing through the state Assembly, which is its next step on the way towards becoming a law. The Assembly has to pass the bill before the end of their term on Aug. 31 for it to get to the governor's desk to be signed into law, and it was advanced last week to be read and voted on on the Assembly floor. Bustle reached out to Gov. Jerry Brown about if he would sign the bill, should it pass.

According to polling from Change Research and the Women's Foundation of California, 60 percent of all Californians — and 69 percent of female Californians — support access to medication abortion on college campuses. And as Field-Elliot explains, it's about more than just abortion, and more than just a pill. "It really is a matter of success at university for these students," she tells Bustle.

Meanwhile, it's also part of a larger effort to change the discourse surrounding abortion. "This movement is about de-stigmatizing abortion," Khan says. "[Abortion] is a good thing. Anything that allows you to make a better decision about your own life, we consider to be a good thing."

Should the bill pass, most of the credit will go to the California students who heard their peers express a need, decided to fight for the cause, and then, as Sen. Leyva notes, expended a lot of energy putting up with an anti-abortion crowd that could be very tough on them.

"People need to listen to student voices more, and the success of this bill so far is a testament to what good can come when we do," Abramowitz says. "It’s showing that if you push really hard for things and you’re not scared to be annoying to the people in power, you can get stuff done."