Meet the California Students Demanding On-Campus Abortion Access

Adiba Khan and Marandah Rain Field-Elliot, seniors at the University of California in Berkeley, are part of a student-led revolution in the state demanding an expansion of access to comprehensive reproductive health care at public universities.

via Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley on Facebook

Together with Phoebe Abramowitz, Khan and Field-Elliot co-authored the College Student Right to Access Act (SB 320), which would require universities across the golden state to offer medication abortion at on-campus health centers. It was introduced in the state senate earlier this year by Senator Connie Leyva; Khan and Field-Elliot plan to work as full-time organizers advocating for the legislation after graduating this month.

Despite false anti-abortion claims that the pill is dangerous, medication abortion has an over 98 percent success rate—and is safer than many of the services currently offered at college health centers. SB 320 would remove unnecessary barriers to medication abortion on campuses across the state, providing critical care to, especially, students of color and low-income students who feel the impact of anti-abortion policies and practices disproportionately.

Khan and Field-Elliot talked to Ms. about the logistical challenges they’ve faced in their groundbreaking efforts—and the importance of demonstrating campus-wide support for reproductive healthcare access.

Reproductive justice advocates have said your work will change how we look at abortion accessibility. What makes SB 320 such a revolutionary bill?

AK: This is the first time in history that legislation has broadly attempted to offer abortion care across public university systems—in addition to making abortion seen as a positive and good service. It is a bill that centers abortion as not simply just “the right to choose,” but, if it passes, ensures concrete accessibility and visibility.

MF: This bill demonstrates that students can be change makers and that we can demand access to abortion in our own spaces. This bill would ensure that medication abortion services are available to all students who might need them, wherever they live or go to school or however much money they make. That’s a game changer—not only for students who are considering abortion and need care, but also for how we think about reproductive health and abortion care more generally. By integrating abortion care into the services provided by student health centers, which are the primary source of medical care for students, this bill tackles stigma head-on and helps normalize abortion and women’s reproductive health care. Students already seek abortion care but are being forced to go off campus, which is an unnecessary barrier that can make it difficult to access affordable care. It’s not easy to raise the money or find transportation to get to a far-away clinic—some students in the state have to travel upwards of 4 hours for abortion care.

AK: Offering medication abortion on campus is an important step towards ensuring students have meaningful access to the full range of reproductive care. This is critical for students because they now will have the ability to make choices about their reproductive bodies, including the choice and having legitimate access to ending a pregnancy. Many students across the UC system are lower-income, work to fund tuition in addition to taking classes and are from underrepresented communities. Having this service allows students to have support right on campus and ensures students don’t have to miss work or class to access abortion. By integrating abortion as a “regular” health service, the stigma of it will decrease, and this will help students feel less stigmatized for having an abortion because the service is not discrete but widely visible. If passed, millions of students across California now will have the ability to access a service that has been for decades declared their constitutional right.

What challenges have you faced in this campaign?

AK: At Berkeley, our administration often cited lack of money and security concerns as a reason to not provide the service. After SB 320 was introduced, we experienced obstacles in securing funding for implementation of medication abortion services across California’s public university systems. We also ended up having to write out community colleges from the bill. Fortunately, we’ve secured the necessary funds to carry out the vision of the bill—but we still have to convince legislators and university administrators of why it’s critical to ensure abortion access and why the abortion pill should be available at student health centers.

MF: People often raise concerns about the costs associated with implementing the bill. Fortunately, a consortium of funders has stepped forward to cover the costs to bring medication abortion to public university student health centers in California if SB 320 becomes law. The funds are sufficient to bring the abortion pill to every University of California and California State University school—as well as any private or community college that opts in. Aside from that, one of the biggest challenges is convincing even liberal-leaning decision makers that abortion access is worth taking the political risk to invest in.

How have you fought back?

AK: Our student organizing when the campaign was first starting at UC Berkeley included using petitions to secure meetings with university administrators in addition to securing passage of a symbolic resolution we authored in the student senate. Our petitions played a key role in the passage of the resolution, which urged our health center to provide medication abortion. Media coverage about the resolution was noticed by The Women’s Foundation of CA, [which led to the launch of a state-wide campaign].

MF: Demonstrating campus support has been crucial to this work since day one. We wouldn’t have the campaign that we have today without effective campus organizing. That’s how all this started—and now we have a statewide campaign of students and allies across California who are working to pass SB 320. The campaign includes bill sponsors Access Women’s Health Justice, Act for Women and Girls, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Berkeley Students for Reproductive Justice and the Women’s Foundation of California.

Has the administration been supportive?

AK: Our experience working with the administration has not been positive. We’ve done everything they’ve asked—studied the student health centers to be assured they are able to provide this service, securing funds for implementation, making a case for why these services are needed and building support among the student body—but none of that mattered to them because they only seemed concerned about their public image and not having to deal with a service that is politically charged.

As a woman of color, I’ve been really troubled the lack of diversity among the administrators I’ve worked with. I want to stress how every single major administration I worked with was white. Only one of these administrators seemed genuinely on board with our campaign becoming a reality. All of the health administration and almost the entirety of university administration. Representation at high levels of power can contribute to advancing progressive and proactive measures that that support and assist communities of color.

MF: The university administration has been frustrating to work with. We’ve repeatedly been told that while the administration is “pro-choice,” but they aren’t willing to actually ensure students can access abortion care because they’re afraid of the public relations backlash. Students shouldn’t have to wait for student health centers to do what they can and should do.

What do you think of criticisms from anti-abortion activists that the bill could be a liability to California’s public universities?

AK: The abortion pill is actually much simpler to provide than some of the care already offered at student health centers. Many on-campus student health centers also offer other reproductive health services including pregnancy options counseling, birth control and sexually transmitted infections testing—just not abortion. The liability associated with providing medication abortion is no different from any of these other services.

MF: Those criticisms aren’t based on facts—it’s just rhetoric that anti-abortion activists use to stop abortion or at least push it out of reach. There is overwhelming evidence proving that abortion pill is safe and effective. It’s FDA-approved and works effectively 98 percent of the time—this was confirmed very recently in a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. It can and should be offered at every student health center.

What sparked your interest in reproductive justice?

AK: My interest was shaped by my experience growing up in Oklahoma and witnessing classmates suffer from a lack of access and ability to make autonomous choices about their reproductive lives. I experienced fear of the impact of not only the lack of access to affordable reproductive health care, but the absence of reproductive rights; I was surprised to know that while California has enacted progressive reproductive rights, that does not translate into accessibility. Our movement is not about “the right to choose,” but about the idea that anyone should be able to have access to their rights.

MF: I was inspired to join SURJ after being in Washington, D.C. during the release of the 2015 videos slandering Planned Parenthood. It was then that I fully grasped the magnitude of the threats to abortion rights, and how the only way we can ensure access for all people is if young people rise up to demand change.

How has attending UC Berkeley shaped your interest in student activism?

AK: I genuinely believe the ability for students to have organized effectively to advance our original local campaign at UC Berkeley would not have been possible without students and faculty who share an understanding for progressive advances within reproductive justice. While we experienced obstacles during our negotiations with UC Berkeley health and the university administration during the original campaign, our student body played an integral role in not only advancing our campaign, but in shaping it in becoming a statewide bill.

MF: Being at such a politically charged, historically activist campus has empowered me to work with other change-makers on my campus. We may work in different issue areas, but we all share the same vision of a more progressive future.

What advice do you have for students who want to get involved in the reproductive justice movement but lack experience in activism?

AK: When I began this campaign as a sophomore, I also had no previous experience in activism. My advice is to learn to be patient and to take incremental steps to make your vision a reality. This campaign started two years ago and we’ll soon be coming up on year three. While a single person may be able to spark a movement like I did, it requires various people to ensure the growth, progression and legitimacy of a campaign. Organize with others who share the same vision and seek advice and help from those who have the power or resources to support you in achieving your goal. Most importantly, you will feel burned out and defeated at times and that’s normal but doesn’t mean the movement is over. Sometimes you just need to find a different path. The university administration didn’t grant our initial request, but now we have an actual piece of legislation that will have an even greater impact that we originally intended.

MF: The biggest piece of advice I have is to understand that this work can happen both incredibly slowly and incredibly quickly. For a long time, I felt like the grueling work we were putting in was not leading to any change. Then, it seemed like all of a sudden, this bill skyrocketed and became a statewide movement. But you have to recognize that even when you feel like nothing is happening with your work, you are making change and that change will soon be evident. Keep working, keep mobilizing, keep pushing for better access.

Salma Srour is an intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is currently a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studies political science.

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