Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Increasing gender equity through abortion pills on campus

  • State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, has co-sponsored a bill that would ensure safe, equitable and affordable access to abortion pills at public university health centers in Massachusetts. Gazette file photo

Published: 6/23/2021 4:42:15 PM

For many college students, access to abortion health care is critical for continuing their education, but unnecessary barriers place heavy burdens on students seeking this care.

Legislation recently introduced by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, would decrease these barriers. H2399/S1470 would ensure safe, equitable and affordable access to abortion pills at public university health centers in Massachusetts.

Abortion pills are a safe, effective, non-surgical method of ending a pregnancy in the first 10 weeks. Patients obtain pills from a medical provider, but take them at home. Although student health insurance plans cover the cost of abortion in Massachusetts, campus health services do not provide this service. This forces students to travel off campus to obtain abortion pills, sometimes requiring them to travel long distances on public transportation because of the limited number of abortion providers in the state with large geographic gaps. University health centers could easily provide this service.

I researched how many students are likely affected by the lack of medication abortion services on campuses and what burdens they experience. I found that between 40 and 64 public university students in Massachusetts obtain medication abortions each month. That’s 480 to 768 students each year. I then measured the distance from each of Massachusetts’ 13 four-year public university campuses to the nearest abortion clinic, and calculated the distance and travel times by public transportation between the campuses and nearest clinics.

The results are that students have to travel between 2 and 42 miles to obtain abortion pill at off-campus clinics. If a student has to use public transportation, this travel can take between 18 and 400 minutes one way to reach the closest abortion clinic. As many as 93% of students at these universities were more than 30 minutes from the closest abortion facility via public transportation.

Students from University of Massachusetts Amherst, for example, have to travel 25 miles to reach the closest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood of Western Massachusetts in Springfield. If they have to take public transportation, the bus ride is 2 hours and 18 minutes one way. To travel to the clinic, obtain the health care they need, and travel home by bus takes almost a full day — time few students have to spare between classes, jobs and other activities. And it’s unnecessary because abortion pills are safe to use, simple to administer, and could be easily offered on campus.

The burdens caused by forcing students off campus to obtain abortion pills fall disproportionately on women, transgender and gender non-conforming students, lower income students, students of color, and those with other family or work responsibilities that place demands on their time and finances. These students are less likely to have the resources to travel long distances to obtain the health care they need.

Increasing access to medication abortion is critical for gender equity as well as racial and economic justice for Massachusetts college students. According to the Guttmacher Institute, almost 40% of women seeking abortion health care do so because having a child would interfere with their education. Research shows that access to contraception and abortion improve women’s educational attainment. Women who have a child while in college are less likely to graduate than those who do not, and 89% of students say that having a child while in school would make it harder to achieve their goals.

Although telemedicine abortion is now available in Massachusetts, the option of receiving in-person care on campus should also be available to all students. Students deserve to have a familiar place to access the abortion health care they need with nurses and doctors they already know and who have their medical records. Students should not have to get on buses and travel long distances to pick up an abortion pill from strangers.

And they should not have to hunt for abortion clinics to get the health care they need. On-campus health services vary in the amount of information they provide about how to find abortion health care off campus, which often leaves students in the position of having to figure out how to obtain care on their own. This puts students at an increased risk of reaching out to one of the many anti-abortion centers masquerading as reproductive health clinics that target college students, which delays or may even prevent access to real health care.

In 2019, California passed a law requiring public universities to offer abortion pills. Massachusetts should do the same. This law would ensure that our public university students can access this safe medication without undue obstacles. If you believe that people should have the right to control their own bodies and make the choices that are best for them without undue burdens, please support this bill. It’s a step toward greater gender equity for college students in Massachusetts.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine.

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