New York Law Will Improve On-Campus Access to Abortion Pills—A Major Victory for Student Activists

Update on Wednesday, May 3, at 1:45 p.m. PT:  On Tuesday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law two bills:

  • The first requires the state’s two public university systemsthe State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY)—to help students access abortion pills. Student activists have been pushing for the bill for years.
  • The second allows pharmacies to sell birth control over the counter.

California and Massachusetts have similar laws requiring pubic universities to provide abortion medication for students. The New York legislation goes into effect on Aug. 1, 2023.

“As anti-choice extremists and judges continue to roll back abortion rights across the country, we are fighting back here in New York,” Hochul said Tuesday. “I am proud to sign these landmark pieces of legislation that protect and expand access to abortion and reproductive healthcare. Under my watch, I will continue to ensure that New York remains a safe harbor for those in need of care.”

Students from Columbia University’s Reproductive Justice Collective at a rally on Dec. 14. (@reprojustivecollective / Instagram)

Students from Columbia University’s Reproductive Justice Collective, Barnard College, City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) rallied last week at the Women’s Health Protective Association Fountain in Riverside Park. Students called on New York state lawmakers to pass bills to make medication abortion available on all 89 CUNY and SUNY campuses across the city and state. Joined by sponsors of the bills Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and Senator Cordell Cleare, the young demonstrators also called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to support the bills and incorporate funding for them into her first executive budget.

“In this post-Roe landscape, it’s critical we ensure young people can get on-demand access to medication abortion we need,” said Niharika Rao of the Reproductive Justice Collective and a youth abortion activist with Advocates for Youth. “We cannot let extremists politicize abortion care—yet today restrictions exist that are based in politics and not in the science. Medication abortion is common, extremely safe, and just like other services offered in primary care settings.”

Two states—California and Massachusetts—now require public universities to offer medication abortion at campus health centers. Now, reproductive justice advocates in New York are pushing to add their state to the list.

Right now, health centers at many public university campuses in New York do not offer medication abortion—a safe and effective way to end an early pregnancy with pills. Abortion pills are 98 percent effective, medically safer than Tylenol and are easy to administer and use.

Restrictions exist that are based in politics, not in science. Medication abortion is common, extremely safe, and just like other services offered in primary care settings.

Niharika Rao, the Reproductive Justice Collective

“Students rely on their health centers for medical care,” said Epstein. “Abortion is medical care, yet far too many schools do not provide access to abortion services at their health centers. As we face an increasingly hostile environment for civil rights, in New York we’re fighting back to guarantee not only the right to abortion but access to it for a population that has limited time, resources and transportation options.”

Advocates for the bills estimate that students on SUNY campuses faced an average trip of 11 miles to the nearest abortion providers, with some campuses as far as 70 miles from the nearest abortion provider. Thousands of college students across New York live in “access deserts,” where the nearest provider is an hours-long bus ride away by public transportation.

“Transportation is one of the most significant barriers to reproductive healthcare services,”said Sophia Panos of Planned Parenthood Generation Action at SUNY Binghamton. “It’s a barrier that I’ve observed when providing resources to students like myself, 3000 of which are not allowed cars on campus due to parking regulations. Others may not even own cars to navigate the area. We need medication abortion available on SUNY campuses. Without it, students have no feasible method of seeking out these services on their own.”

Students face other obstacles accessing abortion care as well, such as lack of information about how to find abortion providers, limited resources and time to obtain this care.

“On-campus provision actually makes insurance coverage easier, reduces precious travel time for students and can help to increase young people’s awareness about their options,” said Rao.

We need medication abortion available on SUNY campuses. Without it, students have no feasible method of seeking out these services on their own.

Sophia Panos, Planned Parenthood Generation Action at SUNY Binghamton

Searching for an abortion provider online, students have to wade through a thicket of anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” that attempt to interfere with and delay their access to reproductive healthcare. Delays can push people past the 10-week FDA time limit for using abortion medications (which are in fact safe to use through 12 weeks of pregnancy according to the World Health Organization).

“Far too often, students seeking abortions have to travel off campus and potentially face academic and financial losses—sometimes with added the emotional toll of having to seek care completely on their own,” said Sean Miller, Northeast regional director for Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of young adults.

Offering medication abortion on university campuses is also a social justice issue, said Miller, because the lack of abortion access is “disproportionally harming young women from low-income, Black and brown families. Hundreds of thousands of New York’s CUNY and SUNY students already depend on their school for help accessing many other forms of healthcare and abortion care should be no different. We must prioritize their needs and provide this vital means of safe, affordable and accessible healthcare.”

Advocates expressed concern that laws banning abortion in other states will force people to travel to New York to get care, increasing wait time at clinics in the state and putting pressure on local abortion funds and doctors.

“New York is a destination state. Our clinics are being overwhelmed. It’s becoming harder to get appointments,” said one student at the rally. “Additionally, it’s becoming harder when the alt-right here in New York, upstate and in the city, have been emboldened and have increased their tactics of harassing and intercepting patients at clinics.”

Under the proposed legislation, CUNY and SUNY campuses across the city and state would be required to provide access to medication abortion at student health centers that serve over half a million students, 57 percent of whom are women. Schools would also have the option to contract with a third party to provide the services. Schools that demonstrate they cannot fulfill the mandate would be required to provide referrals off-campus to hospitals or clinics.

The legislation also establishes a “public college and public university student health center abortion by medication fund” jointly overseen by the State Comptroller, health commissioner and chancellors from SUNY and CUNY. 

“As New York becomes a destination state for abortion access, we must reduce wait times and funding pressure by making on-campus abortion pills available to students,” said Rao.

While the legislation only applies to public universities, advocates hope the legislation will influence private colleges and universities to also offer medication abortion in their on-campus health centers. In October, Barnard College became the first private college in New York to offer medication abortion at its student health center.

“Healthcare is a human right and an essential aspect of making this principle manifest is ensuring that comprehensive care is available in a direct, unfettered and accessible way,” said Senator Cordell Cleare. “For the hundreds of thousands of college students in New York State, campus health centers are the first, best and only option for timely medical care and attention. Our legislation is needed because these centers must provide a full scope of services, including medication abortion, which will ensure the health, safety and well-being of students.”

Up next:

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.