How Campus Activism Shaped California’s Legislative Agenda

After months of advocacy by feminist activists and organizations working with college students, the California state legislature last week passed four bills—SB 24, SB 464, AB 963 and AB 59—that together will expand access to abortion care on college campuses, address disparities in maternal health care and increase civic engagement among young voters.

(Nasty Women Portraits / Creative Commons)

Feminist Majority Foundation, the Women’s Foundation of California, ACLU California, ACCESS: Women’s Health Justice, Act for Women and Girls, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and NARAL: Pro-Choice California all played major roles in making these laws possible—and so did the student activists who mobilized to get them passed by their lawmakers.

SB 24 passed 55 to 19, with five absent voters. The College Student Right to Access Act, if signed by Governor Newsom, would require all on-campus student health centers at public universities and colleges to offer abortion medication to students by January 1, 2023. Currently, none of the student health care centers at California’s public colleges and universities provide medication abortion services. Students seeking this basic care must travel off campus to access it—often with serious logistical and financial barriers. For low-income students, especially, paying out-of-pocket at a clinic, securing reliable transportation and missing school and work to access timely care are huge obstacles.

“Getting SB 24 to become a law has been my goal for the past year,” said Feminist Majority Foundation Campus Organizer Emily Escobar. “Working alongside student activists to organize, rally and speak out has shown me that real change begins with elevating marginalized voices and bringing them to the forefront of the movement. Student-led activism is the real driving force behind Senate Bill 24.”

SB 464, The Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act, aims to reduce pregnancy-related preventable deaths, severe illnesses and associated health disparities by addressing implicit bias among perinatal health providers. It passed 40 to 0, with all members voting.

In the U.S., at least 700 people die from childbirth each year, and 50,000 more suffer from severe complications. Additionally, in California, women of color, particularly Black women, experience maternal mortality at rates three to four times higher than white women, and evidence points to implicit bias as the culprit.

SB 464 requires all health care providers involved in perinatal services at hospitals and alternative birth centers to undergo evidence-based implicit bias training through a program that tasks medical professionals with addressing personal, institutional, structural and cultural barriers to access health care; requires the California Department of Public Health to track and publish maternal mortality and morbidity rates, including information about the underlying causes and the racial or ethnic identities of patients; and adopts the U.S. standard death certificate format regarding pregnancy.

AB 963, the Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Act, which was written in consultation with FMF National Campus Organizer Carmen Liñero-Lopez, passed 67 to seven with five absent voters. In an effort to empower a new generation of voters, it requires all 147 California public colleges and universities to designate one faculty member as a Civic and Voter Empowerment Coordinator who shall convene a committee of relevant administrators, faculty and students to develop a Civic and Voter Empowerment Action Plan for a campus-wide effort to increase civic learning and democratic participation; facilitate a minimum of four events each academic calendar year that includes a focus on civic engagement, voter turnout and community building; and require all relevant civic and election dates be included on the annual academic calendar and notify students through email and social media of these dates.

AB 59, also written with input from Liñero-Lopez, passed 65 to 11 with three absent voters—and if signed by Governor Newsom, AB 59 would prioritize the placement of vote centers and satellite elections offices on California university and college campuses, therefore increasing access among young people. Together, AB 963 and AB 59 would promote democratic participation and civic engagement of California students, a population of roughly 3 million people.

“The passage of these bills is truly an important step towards an intersectional framework not just in activism but also in legislation,” Escobar said. “From promoting civic engagement to reproductive justice, they directly address the need for access for everyone in the community—especially for people of color, women, and low-income individuals.”

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