The end of Yael Benvenuto Ladin’s senior year at Oberlin College in Ohio was in sight. After more than two years of pandemic learning, she wanted to finish her classes and her thesis, graduate and go. Her campus activism days were over, the rising leaders behind her readying to take the baton.
All that changed a month before graduation, when Benvenuto Ladin read about the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively removing guaranteed federal protection for a legal abortion. She immediately organized last-minute abortion support training for Oberlin students and began trying to figure out what would happen to students in the 13 states where abortion will become illegal automatically if the draft opinion is adopted as the court’s final decision.
And, like students, college officials and abortion access advocates in states with so-called trigger laws, she’s bracing for what may come in the fraught and uncertain months ahead. She knows a great deal of training would be needed to sustain abortion access in a post-Roe world.
“There was a time before Roe, and unfortunately, there’s going to be a time after Roe,” Benvenuto Ladin said. “It’s not that that won’t be incredibly harmful. It will, and should absolutely not be happening. But it doesn’t take away all the work that’s been done and all of the networks of community care that have been established.”
Reproductive rights advocates like Benvenuto Ladin, who was a leader in the Oberlin Doula Collective, rallied immediately, thinking of new ways to help students seeking abortions if they become illegal. If colleges are doing the same thinking, it is almost impossible to find out: Dozens could not answer questions about what they will do to guide students if the court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Abortion will become illegal automatically in 13 states if the draft Supreme Court opinion becomes final
More than 30 colleges in the 13 so-called trigger-law states declined interview requests or provided vague written answers, underscoring the tough political quandary they find themselves in. That’s partly because they are awaiting the court’s decision and are worried about taking potentially divisive action, said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education.
“Part of the issue is that we’ve got uncertainties layered on uncertainties,” Mitchell said. Colleges and their lawyers are “war-gaming different Supreme Court decisions for states even without trigger laws and what the implications will be for students, student health centers, medical centers, all of that.”
Public colleges rely on state legislatures for funding. Mitchell said states may be wise not to pick fights in the abstract, especially without knowing precisely what the boundaries of the decision will be and what state legislation it could trigger.
And though some colleges may want to assure their students of complete safety and protection, they may be afraid to promise things they are ultimately not able to deliver, he said.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a final decision on Roe v. Wade by early July. In the likely case that Roe is overturned, it’s possible that President Joe Biden would take executive action to protect the right to abortion, but it is unclear what exactly he could do.
Although colleges have yet to signal how they would respond, it’s clear that many health officials, student advocates and college administrators are aware of the new era they may face, especially in states where abortion would be illegal with very few exceptions.
Traditional college-age women between the ages of 20 and 24 make up about 28 percent of those who obtain legal abortions, and women ages 25 through 29 make up 29 percent, totaling about 57 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Though the CDC tracked women, others, including transgender men and nonbinary people, also get pregnant and obtain abortions.)
Many of these people live in states that will immediately ban or significantly limit abortion if Roe is overturned, known as trigger-law states. Among them are traditionally conservative states such as Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Idaho. Ohio, where Benvenuto Ladin went to college, is considered likely to pass an abortion ban if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.
And while circumstances are likely to be complicated for many abortion-seekers in those states, college students face special barriers. Often they don’t have cars. Their health insurance typically comes from either their parents or their colleges. In addition to rigorous course schedules, students often hold jobs and have off-campus responsibilities, making it logistically difficult for them to travel to another state for an abortion procedure. Even students who live in states that protect their right to abortion would have more trouble with access, advocates expect, because clinics there would begin serving an influx of people from states where abortion is restricted.
Colleges and their lawyers are “war-gaming different Supreme Court decisions for states even without trigger laws and what the implications will be for students, student health centers, medical centers, all of that.”
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education
Students from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, students who are undocumented, and low-income students would be hurt disproportionately by reduced abortion access, said Ushma Upadhyay, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco. These students are more likely than others to lack the financial resources needed to access abortions, she said.
Mitchell said students can expect a spectrum of responses from their colleges. Some will support reduced abortion access. Others will quietly affirm the rights of their students; still others are likely to pressure state legislatures to pass laws repealing the previous abortion restrictions.
At a minimum, advocates say colleges should provide easy access to sexual health care, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections; contraception; pregnancy tests; and flexible attendance policies. Some urge colleges to develop financial and legal support for students seeking abortions as well.
If college students lose access to abortions, Upadhyay said, she sees three possible outcomes. In order to terminate a pregnancy, they will need the time and money to travel for a procedure, or to order pills online and self-manage their abortion in isolation. If they don’t have access to either of those options, she worries that students will seek to terminate their pregnancies in unsafe ways. If they have to carry a pregnancy to term, she said, they may suffer academic, financial and mental health strains.
What colleges could do
Advocates say colleges should consider several nonmedical ways to support students.
Colleges should evaluate and improve the sexual health care resources they offer on campus, including access to birth control and emergency contraceptives, STD and STI testing and treatment, and pregnancy tests, advocates say.
To protect students who become pregnant, advocates say colleges need flexible attendance policies. Those in states where abortion is illegal will need to travel if they are seeking a procedural abortion, in which a clinician uses a method such as suction to remove the fetus. Those who get a medication abortion, in which a series of pills are taken hours or days apart to terminate the pregnancy, may have severe cramping and bleeding, requiring them to miss class. And regardless of whether students intend to terminate a pregnancy or carry it to term, they may need to stay home because of disruptive pregnancy symptoms.
Campus health centers in trigger-law states could give students access to a confidential medical professional who could provide information while they are evaluating their options or answer questions about what is normal while they are going through the abortion process, Upadhyay said.
Colleges could also create financial support funds to help students access the abortions they need, and could potentially offer them legal support in case they are criminalized for their actions.
What advocates are doing
Though students and advocates hope for support from colleges, they are not waiting for it. They have already built the systems and are developing the ranks of young people to help one another get the reproductive health care they need.
Benvenuto Ladin went to college in northern Ohio and has since moved back to her home state of Massachusetts, but she’s been working with a network of other young people all over the country through Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that works to empower young people in a variety of areas.
She helped design Advocates for Youth abortion doula training, which was in its fifth of six weeks when the draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked. Working to deal with the potential outcomes of the court’s expected ruling both nationally and on her campus, she learned “a lot of people were afraid, but they had no idea of what to be afraid of.”
Benvenuto Ladin is concerned that the overturn of Roe would make it even more difficult to talk about already-stigmatized subjects like sex and abortion. She’s worried this could make matters worse for students who already lack reliable financial support and access to health care.
“One of the best things that people can do right now is to seek out education,” Benvenuto Ladin said. “Let people know in your community that this is an issue that you care about — that you believe this is health care.”
Tamara Marzouk, the director of abortion access at Advocates for Youth, said the abortion doula training program prepares young people to support their peers before, during and after an abortion. Though doula tends to have a medical connotation, Marzouk said, “this is community knowledge, this is not some specialized training.”
Trainees are asked to consider their own strengths and boundaries as they learn how to provide emotional and practical support to someone going through the abortion process. The practical support can include sharing information about resources, driving or accompanying someone to a clinic, sitting with the person afterward or lending a heating pad to alleviate physical discomfort. The young people are also being taught how to organize, and how to educate others.
Niharika Rao, a student activist who just finished their junior year at Barnard College in New York, said they took incompletes in a couple of classes because the leaked draft opinion on abortion rights so disrupted the end of the school year.
“Hopefully, things become better. Which is insane to think about, because they probably won’t for a while,” Rao said. “The world is in a very heavy place right now.”
Rao, who also helped design the abortion doula training, said that although the right to abortion will be protected in New York even if Roe is overturned, they know students in other states will be in a more precarious and confusing situation. They’re helping to prepare fellow Barnard students to offer virtual support to students whose rights aren’t protected.
“We need to change the way we’re approaching this topic now, because eventually it’s going to become a very hostile environment on campus.”
Emily Cuarenta, a Georgia state organizer for URGE
The youth network established by Advocates for Youth is one of several that have formed across the country. Both URGE, a reproductive justice nonprofit, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America have youth networks with campus chapters.
URGE, which stands for Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, helps students learn how to communicate with legislators about issues of reproductive health care, and generally uses a “train the trainer” model, said Emily Cuarenta, a Georgia state organizer who supports the campus groups. She tries to let them lead and decide which ideas they want to pursue, and helps them find grants to fund initiatives related to sexual and reproductive health, she said.
In Georgia, a federal judge blocked a 2019 state law that would have made abortion illegal after about six weeks, before many people know they are pregnant, but it’s now being appealed. It’s unclear what will happen if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.
Cuarenta said she is thinking about digital security, too, such as any risks associated with using online menstrual-period-tracking apps, and what it will mean to talk about abortion openly if Roe is overturned.
“We need to change the way we’re approaching this topic now, because eventually it’s going to become a very hostile environment on campus,” Cuarenta said.
Kate Cartagena, the director of youth campaigns at Planned Parenthood, encourages the 100,000 young people in more than 300 college and high school chapters to seek hyper-local, specific solutions, like asking for flexible attendance policies, creating travel funds for students seeking abortions, and lobbying for more comprehensive sex education in their state.
“We need young people’s creative solutions,” Cartagena said. “We just have to listen to them. We have to hear them and we have to help them move those solutions forward.”
Related: Sex education is a hot topic
Beyond student advocacy networks, young people can also seek help through hotlines and abortion funds.
Veronica Jones, the chief operating officer at the nonprofit National Abortion Federation, said the group foresees an increase in need, and expects about 30 percent of people seeking abortions will need to travel from states that have banned them. To address the anticipated influx, it has hired more intake counselors and case managers.
Most people who call the federation’s hotline have an appointment for an abortion already, but a person can call at any point, and case managers will help them weigh their options and figure out logistics like travel, housing, funding or how to discreetly take time off work or school, Jones said.
The federation administers one of the country’s largest abortion funds, but there are also local funds, like the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts, where Kate Glynn, co-chair of the board, said, “It’s going to get worse, but we are not starting from scratch.”
“There was a time before Roe, and unfortunately, there’s going to be a time after Roe. It’s not that that won’t be incredibly harmful. …. But it doesn’t take away all the work that’s been done.”
Yael Benvenuto Ladin, recent Oberlin College graduate and abortion access advocate
Massachusetts has some of the country’s widest abortion access, but Glynn said the fund is necessary because even in states where abortion is legal, people still need help. And given the anticipated influx of people from other, more restrictive states, many are advocating for campus health centers to provide medication abortions. In Massachusetts, a proposed bill would require all public colleges and universities to offer medication abortions. It’s modeled after a similar bill in California, which passed in 2019 and will be implemented by 2023.
“I think at the end of the day, it makes it a little bit easier for students to continue their work and studies,” said Massachusetts state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “And it helps reduce stigma.”
Marzouk said it’s important that college students understand the laws in their state and know their rights. Even if they live or go to school in a state where abortion would be banned, if they find themselves needing one, they will be able to lean on the young people who were trained to provide information as well as emotional and practical support.
“Even with Roe being overturned, people are showing up for each other,” Marzouk said. “I do know that young people will not let the right to abortion access disappear.”
This story about post-Roe on campus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.