College Students Enlist in Fight Against Looming Abortion Restrictions

Despite restrictive abortion legislation adopted in Georgia and other states, local abortion-rights advocates are making sure college students understand the new ban is not yet in effect and encouraging them to join efforts to fight the prohibition.

June 7, 2019
 

A sign posted outside the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta lets potential patients and passersby know that the facility, which provides abortions and other sexual health services, is open.

The sign is important. Georgia is one of several states that passed laws in recent months that restrict abortions. Georgia's governor signed a bill forbidding the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, a time frame when most women don’t yet know they are pregnant and when, abortion opponents claim -- while medical professional disagree -- a fetus supposedly has a heartbeat.

In Alabama, a new ban restricts all abortions except in the most extreme of circumstances where the pregnancy threatens the expectant person’s life.

Although these restrictive laws have not yet taken effect, local reproductive health activists worry that many college students in the affected states may believe abortion is already banned and may be confused by media coverage that doesn't make clear that legal challenges may keep the laws from being implemented. The activists are in the midst of an aggressive campaign to inform the public that abortion remains legal for now, but the prospect that abortion services could disappear has especially galvanized college students.

“There’s a beautiful movement building in the face of this ban,” said Wula Dawson, spokeswoman for the Feminist Women’s Health Center. “We’re really hopeful and inspired to have had an influx of donations and volunteers engage with us. They’re skewing younger, making $5, $10, $15 donations. It’s scary, but there’s a positive story of stepping up and coming together to protect this constitutional right.”

At least nine states have recently passed restrictive new abortion laws, although the measures in Georgia and Alabama have gotten the most media attention. Lawmakers in those states have said the laws are a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Georgia's previous abortion law, which remains in effect until January, prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The new law shortens the ban to six weeks except in the case of rape, incest and medical emergencies.

Even before the law passed, student organizations were out in force protesting the proposed ban. On social media, there were countless demonstrations of students opposing the ban. At Emory University the campus chapter of the national reproductive justice law group If/When/How tried to boost its membership and draw attention to the legislation and underlying issues by bringing in medical practitioners and lawyers to discuss the implications of the law, said Erica Reeves, the group's new president.

Emory's chapter and others across the country began holding Stop the Ban rallies shortly after the bill was signed, Reeves said.

"Basically it’s just getting the word out there," Reeves said. "This is actually happening -- actions are being taken against abortion, especially in Georgia. The right to have a safe, legal abortion is at risk. We had a sense of complacency that Roe v. Wade would never be overturned. It seemed like an out-there extreme. But this is real. I’ve been telling people at the rallies that our right to have a safe, legal abortion is at risk."

Most college health centers provide students birth control and emergency contraception but do not perform abortions. However, they can help connect students to health care providers that do.

It's unclear how colleges over all are responding to the new state measures -- they aren't talking about this publicly. A dozen prominent institutions in Georgia and Alabama contacted by Inside Higher Ed did not respond to requests for comment.

Emory declined to comment, as did the American College Health Association, which also refused to connect Inside Higher Ed to any colleges.

Advocacy groups, though, have been answering students' questions and letting them know that abortions still are legal and teaching them about reproductive health and how to advocate for it.

Spark is one such organization. It is focused on the reproductive health needs of young black women and queer and trans youth who might not identify as female but can still become pregnant. The organization is based in Atlanta but travels to the other parts of the state, such as Albany, Macon and Athens, where the University of Georgia is located, to let students and others know that despite the fact that the anti-abortion bills were signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp, access to abortion services remains unaffected. Spark doesn’t directly provide abortions but can connect its clients to clinics that do.

“We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries. ‘What’s the status of this service? Is it illegal? What’s going on?’” said Krystal Redman, Spark's executive director.

Redman said that even if abortions were to become illegal, abortion services would just move underground and become a sometimes unsafe practice. She said state legislators who passed the restrictive laws failed to consider the history of illegal, so-called back-alley abortions that took place before the Supreme Court legalized the procedure nationwide. Now, Spark needs young, college-age organizers to help fight the laws, Redman said. She hopes to motivate students at institutions such as Georgia State University and Spelman College, a women’s institution.

Local abortion rights activists were already trying to connect with college students prior to the bill's passage.

Jalessah Jackson is a coordinator for Sister Song, a national organization focused on improving "institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities," and a part-time lecturer in African American and women's and gender studies at Kennesaw State University. She said that during the last legislative session, she used the debate over the abortion law in her curriculum to teach students about “reproductive justice and oppression.”

She said abortion is connected to issues of race, gender and identity and that students used those lessons to lobby lawmakers in the capital to vote against the bill.

Sister Song recently held a “town hall” for new members and interested activists, many of whom were college students, Jackson said. The group provided an update on the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the ban. The ACLU has noted that Georgia has one of the worst maternal death rates in the country. Activists fear that if abortion essentially becomes illegal in the state, women will resort to unsafe methods to end their pregnancies, which would raise the death toll further.

“Just because abortion is a taboo conversation, young people are really shamed for taking care of themselves,” Jackson said. “We’ve been really trying to shift the culture with younger populations.”

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