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Colleges in Red States Are Preparing for a Post-Roe Crisis

The situation looks like “uncertainties layered on uncertainties.”

A colonnade in front of a historic building on a college campus.
Oberlin College. Getty Images Plus

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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 only 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. Among them are traditionally conservative states such as Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Idaho. Ohio, where Benvenuto Ladin went to college, does not have a trigger law but is considered likely to pass an abortion ban if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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A young woman wearing all black stands in a garden.
Yael Benvenuto Ladin, a recent graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, is working to improve access to abortions for young people who live in states where the procedures would be banned or significantly limited if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, effectively removing the federal right to a legal abortion. Kate Flock for the Hechinger Report
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She helped design Advocates for Youth’s 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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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 such students.

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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.

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A hand holds up a booklet containing abortion stories.
Benvenuto Ladin said talking about abortion and sharing experiences is an important way to destigmatize the topic, especially at a time when abortion access could be significantly limited in many parts of the country. Kate Flock for the Hechinger Report
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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.

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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 hyperlocal, 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.”

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.

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