For some public university students in Massachusetts, like those at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the nearest abortion clinic is more than a three hour trip away by public transportation.
State legislators are considering a bill that would change that.
“An Act to require public universities to provide medication abortion” is currently with the Committee on Public Health in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate. If passed, it would require public universities to provide medication abortion services at student health centers and also establish a fund to help cover the costs of medication abortion options.
Reproductive Equity Now, an advocacy organization, recently launched a $50,000 digital advertising campaign in hopes of garnering signatures on a petition calling on lawmakers to pass the bill.
“The goal of our campaign is really to educate the public — in addition to trying to influence Beacon Hill — but to educate the public about the fact that it’s not always easy to get abortion care here in Massachusetts and that there can be access deserts, ” Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of Reproductive Equity Now, told Boston.com.
Research done by Carrie N. Baker, a professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College estimates that about 600 to 1,380 Massachusetts public university students obtain abortion services each year.
But even though Massachusetts has legal protections for abortion in place, such as the Roe Act, access remains an issue.
“If a college student at UMass Dartmouth doesn’t have a car and wants and feels that medication abortion is the right choice for them, you’re looking at a six hour round trip on public transportation,” Hart Holder said. “I mean, that’s absurd, right? Nobody should have to travel that far in order to get basic health care.”
Baker’s research showed students have to travel a population-weighted average of 19 miles each way and that the time needed to travel there on public transportation can range from 18 to 400 minutes.
“We know that young people are likely to have unwanted pregnancies, including young people who are in college,” Baker told Boston.com. “Because the 13th [public university] Campuses in the state don’t offer medication abortion in the health care centers, it means the students have to go off campus. And because of abortion health care [is] so stigmatized, often that’s hard to find.”
Baker said one of the leading reasons college students give for wanting an abortion is because being pregnant and having a child would interrupt their education. But, because of how inaccessible abortion services can be, Baker said the process is still interrupting their education.
“So many of these clinics aren’t open on Saturday, so it means that students have to take time off during the week,” she said. “They have to skip classes and miss work, miss extracurricular activities, take a whole day to drive or bus all the way down to the clinic. Whereas if you could go to a health care clinic, it’s already all set up. You just walk across campus, you get your pills, you go home, you take them.”
Opponents of the bill say medication abortions are risky and may result in complications that can’t be resolved at a campus health center. But Baker pointed to research from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a research program at the University of California San Francisco, that shows the risks are low, with serious adverse effects occurring in only 0.3% of medication abortions.
If Roe v. Wade were to be overturned by the Supreme Court, as the leaked majority opinion indicates is a possibility, at least 23 states seem likely to either immediately or very quickly restrict abortion access, which may push people to travel across state lines to receive care.
“If Massachusetts becomes a sanctuary state where people come to the state — whether that’s from New Hampshire, or from Texas, or from West Virginia, or from anywhere — by bus by car by plane to get abortion care, I mean that will burden clinics and create longer, waiting times and access issues,” Baker said. “This bill in particular, I think, can be something that we in our state can do to kind of absorb some of the shock waves from the fact that if Roe is overturned 26 states are certain are likely to ban abortion.”
For both Baker and Hart Holder, beyond the practical implications of widening abortion access on college campuses, the proposed legislation in Massachusetts would help normalize abortion services.
“We felt like getting getting public universities to stock medication abortion not only makes a real impact on people’s lives, but it also normalizes abortion care as part of health care,” Hart Holder said. “We were really looking to just mainstream abortion access and we think doing it through college campus pharmacies is a really smart way to do it.”
Abortion has been in the news and on people’s minds in the last week more than usual, but Hart Holder said the Supreme Court leak didn’t change Reproductive Equity Now’s approach — they knew it was coming sometime soon.
“I hate to say this, but this is sort of the moment we’ve been planning for — obviously, we did not plan for it,” Hart Holder said. “No one could have known that it would go this way. But we’ve been expecting, at a minimum, the 15-week ban to be upheld and at a maximum Roe to fall. Our legislation has been geared or the bills that we’re supporting have been really geared towards access, right. We did the Roe Act, we did legal protections, and now we’re looking at access.”
Baker echoed Hart Holder’s thoughts, saying the leaked majority opinion is “really mobilizing reproductive rights advocates” in the fight to protect reproductive rights.
“This is a social justice issue,” she said. “This is an economic justice issue, it’s a racial justice issue, and it’s a gender justice issue. Requiring people to go to clinics disproportionately burdens low income people who are disproportionately people of color. By not having pills available on campus and forcing people off campus and forcing them to miss classes and work, particularly for low income people that can’t afford that, you are interfering with their education.”
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