Speaking in front of the UC Board of Regents championing abortion access for students on campus was a powerful moment for student-activists Elizabeth Kavianian and Phoebe Abramowitz.
“It was initially a little intimidating,” Kavianian said, “because they’re all sitting there quietly. But once I got up to the microphone, I started speaking; it was definitely a very empowering moment. I really had the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, and really push for them to support SB 24.”
SB 24, or The College Student Right to Access Act, is a bill that would increase access to medical, nonsurgical abortions on college campuses—commonly referred to as the “abortion pill”—by mandating state schools’ student health clinics provide medication abortion. Once the bill becomes law, a consortium of private donors have stepped forward to cover the full preparation costs for implementation on every public university campus in California.
Both Kavianian and Abramowitz spoke on Wednesday as part of a campaign called justCARE, a program of the California Women’s Foundation that promotes campus activism for reproductive rights. The campaign brought students from across California to demonstrate in front of the building where the Regents were meeting, from northern California where the meeting took place, all the way to the Mexican border.
Other groups joined forces with the student protestors, like the Feminist Majority Foundation, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and ACCESS: Women’s Health Justice.
This widespread show of support from throughout California was particularly powerful in the face of a coalition of anti-choice groups—like Students for Life, Right to Life Kern County and 40 Days For Life—who flew demonstrators in from Washington, Oregon and Nevada.
“I felt powerful to be able to testify in front of the Board of Regents this morning,” Abramowitz said, “especially backed by my fellow students rallying outside. Students all across the state have to take time off from class and from work to come and show up repeatedly, at a variety of events, including in the capital.”
Hundreds of thousands of students in California across the UC and CSU systems could benefit by greater access to medication abortion. Delays and difficulties in accessing affordable, safe and early abortion care disproportionately interfere with the academic success and well-being of female students—particularly impacting students of color and low-income students, for whom reliable transportation and a flexible work schedule is less accessible.
Kavianian, of UC Riverside, echoed this, adding, “We know that students who struggle financially, especially students of color, face the highest obstacles when receiving this care.”
If passed, SB 24 would allow up an estimated 322 to 519 students each month who seek to terminate a pregnancy to receive their care on campus—perhaps setting the trend for other states, as Massachusetts eyes a similar bill.
“The passage of SB 24 would be monumental,” said Emily Escobar, campus organizer for Feminist Majority Foundation, “because along with expanding access to medication abortion for California students, it would also set a precedent for other states and state legislators about the importance of accessibility.”
Berkeley student Abramowitz has been campaigning since 2015. Then, the Berkeley Students United for Reproductive Justice club—of which she was a part—similarly advocated for safe access to medical abortions on campus, using petitions, media appearances, rallies and other forms of activism.
But in February of 2017, Abramowitz was shocked when the university, usually known for having progressive policy, refused the students’ efforts, for “political reasons.” She said school administrators implied the students “were going too far” and wondered if access to medical abortions on campus was really necessary.
“And what we said the entire time,” Abramowitz told Ms., “and what students bravely came forward to say, is that, yes, this is necessary, and yes, this is what it looks like.”
Abramowitz is spot-on about the necessity of accessible, safe abortions for students. Currently, no California public university health center provides medication abortion services. Transportation creates a barrier in the struggle for abortion accessibility, as over two-thirds of UC students and one-third of CSU students do not have a car, and 22 of these campuses—which account for 62 percent of the student body—are more than 30 minutes away from the closest abortion provider via public transportation. In fact, this inaccessibility to abortions violates California law, as the California Code of Regulations mandates students must not travel more than 30 minutes for primary care.
Initially, the student-supported movement backed a previous iteration of the same bill, SB 320; but when the bill reached then-Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, he refused to sign it. Activists for SB 24, however, believe they have a much greater chance of getting the bill passed with current-Governor Gavin Newsom, who said that he would have signed SB 320 into law, had he been in office at the time.
“We look forward to continuing that relationship with [the governor],” Abramowitz said, “and him being able to live up to his statement of wanting California to be really progressive in abortion access.”
Regardless, Abramowitz and her peers knew then what they still know now: that this type of access is a human right.
“Bodily autonomy is essential for everyone to have freedom, and that equitable access to healthcare is a key component of that,” Abramowitz said. “For us, this isn’t a debate about political conservatism or liberalism. It’s about us being able to access our healthcare.”
The bill is poised to become law, having already cleared the Senate. The last hurdle—and perhaps the most important next step—is for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the head of California Appropriations Committee, to bring this to the floor of the Assembly for a vote.
But regardless of a seemingly clear path towards political victory, the formal support of the UC Board which the students are seeking would serve both as political leverage and as moral support for students and advocates who have been fighting for four years.
However this fight ends, Kavianian knows that she and students like her will keep fighting for reproductive rights and access on campuses for as long as it takes.
“We’re going to just keep mobilizing our campuses, and continue to get support and bring awareness to it,” she said. “We have a really incredibly powerful coalition of women and queer people and allies across the state, that really, really inspire me. I feel the power in our feminism and activism as young people all the time, every time we’re together, including this morning.”
“It’s really important to us to keep it grounded in our own experiences as students, and to be sure that there are student voices in the room [and that we are] able to advocate for ourselves, and [voice] what’s impacting our day to day lives and our ability to be students successfully, regardless of whether or not we can get pregnant.”