My turn: Provide college students with abortion access on campus

By Ushma Upadhyay, Special to CALmatters

California has a history of creating innovative policies to move the state—and the nation—forward. Now, lawmakers have an opportunity to lead nationally again by increasing access to abortion services for college students.

In the coming days, the Assembly will vote on SB 320, a bill that could give college students at our state’s campuses access to abortion pills at their campus health center. My colleagues and I have studied abortion care in California and it’s clear that there is a demand for medication abortion among college students. This legislation would help them overcome barriers to get the care they want and need.

Medication abortion is also known as medical abortion, the abortion pill, or RU486. It can be used in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy and involves the use of two types of medications: mifepristone, which blocks progesterone needed for a pregnancy to continue, and misoprostol, which causes uterine contractions and the cervix to open to induce an abortion.

Clinicians usually give patients the mifepristone to take right away at the clinic and the misoprostol to take at home 48 to 72 hours later. So whether a student gets abortion pills from a local clinic or a student health center, the abortion will take place at home or elsewhere if she chooses. Patients typically have a follow-up visit 1 to 2 weeks later to ensure the abortion is complete.

Our research shows substantial demand for medication abortion on California campuses. Between 322 and 519 UC and CSU students seek medication abortion off-campus each month. But getting the care they need can be time consuming and disruptive to students’ already demanding schedules.

On average, students have to travel 34 minutes each way to the nearest facility by public transit, and 65 percent of all UC and CSU students are more than 30 minutes away from the nearest provider by public transit. Given two round-trip visits for medication abortion, this adds up to over 2 hours of travel time. For five CSU campuses, travel time to the closest abortion facility is more than 1 hour each way—or 4 hours total.

Beyond travel time, finding an appointment that fits a student’s schedule can be challenging. Only five of the abortion facilities closest to UC and CSU campuses are ever open on weekends and the average wait time until the first available appointment at the facilities closest to campus was seven days. These barriers mean that having to seek care off-campus can lead to delays in care and interruption to coursework.

Delays in obtaining care as students learn to navigate an external health care system could push students past ten weeks of pregnancy, the current limit for a medication abortion.

Making medication abortion available on campus goes hand in hand with supporting educational equity for all students regardless of gender and income.

Having to seek care at an off-campus facility, students may be forced to miss classes, work, or other school commitments. Many also do not have access to a car and may not be able to afford a taxi or Uber.

The impacts can be long-term and life-changing—studies show that those who have a child while in college are less likely to graduate than those who do not.

After an unintended pregnancy, students need support for all options. Some students may choose to continue a pregnancy, and these students should receive the support they need to succeed. Similarly, those who want to end their pregnancies should have access to high-quality abortion care from their campus health center, where they seek other primary health care.

Access to abortion care for those who want it can be important for college participation and success and universities can fulfill their responsibility to students by providing desired health care and support for their reproductive life decisions. The necessity of leaving campus for this service when other primary health care services can be obtained on campus unnecessarily burdens those students who need an abortion.

Legislators should support students seeking abortion who need convenient access to health care services that does not involve unnecessary interruption and significant barriers in their complex lives.

Ushma Upadhyay is associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of research of UC Global Health Institute’s Women’s Health, Gender and Empowerment Center of Expertise[email protected].  She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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