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Eleanor Walter joined the Rally for Abortion Justice in early October because she believes Texas’s restrictive new abortion law is “needlessly hurting” people.
A student at the University of Texas at Austin and president of the University Democrats, Walter and many of her classmates marched to the state capitol to protest the passage of SB 8, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy -- when many people aren’t yet aware they’re pregnant. It also allows private citizens to sue anyone involved in performing abortions, making them eligible for a $10,000 reward the defendant -- whether a provider, funder, clergyperson, friend or family member -- pays if they prevail.
“I showed up because abortion is health care,” Walter said. “Banning abortion won’t stop abortion -- it’ll stop safe abortions.”
Thousands more descended on cities from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles Oct. 2 to join the Rally for Abortion Justice, organized by the founders of the Women’s March. Carrying signs and chanting slogans such as “My body, my choice,” they took aim at the nation’s most restrictive antiabortion law, which went into effect in September, four months after Texas governor Greg Abbot signed the legislation.
The law is “unimaginably cruel,” said Sarah Wheat, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. Students who turn to a parent, friend, classmate or professor for help in obtaining an abortion put them at risk and could face thousands of dollars in legal fees, she said, which might lead them to isolate themselves to protect their loved ones.
“Whether you’re an out-of-state student who just lost the constitutional right to abortion you would have been afforded at home, or a native Texan forced to leave the state for health care, college students face an incredible burden under SB 8,” Wheat said. “Students juggling school, work and family commitments are forced to skip classes, call out from their jobs and scrape together transportation costs needed to travel the hundreds of miles it can take to leave Texas.”
Having to go out of state to get care is especially challenging for students who are still on their parents’ health insurance or who lack insurance or their parents’ financial support altogether, said the Very Reverend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation. She said it’s hard to understand what colleges are allowed to do under the ban, suggesting that institutions could still provide financial support or arrange transportation for students who have to travel elsewhere to get an abortion.
“They need to have access to the care that they need to protect their health and to build the kind of families they want, when they want,” Ragsdale said. “And this Texas law does everything imaginable, and things we never imagined, to stand in the way of people receiving health care.”
Her organization, the National Abortion Federation, works to help provide funding and logistical support for people seeking abortions, including paying for them, finding a clinic and arranging transportation. It also provides a hotline people can call for information, confidential consultations, counseling and referrals.
Abortion is essential health care, Ragsdale said, and even more essential for college students who are planning futures and trying to follow their dreams.
“To have the potential to have all of that cut off by unwanted childbirth, it’s just a terrible burden to place on anybody,” Ragsdale said. “But it’s tragic to think of that burden being placed on young people at that point in their lives when they’re getting ready to launch themselves.”
Getting an abortion was difficult enough for Texas college students without SB 8. State law already imposes abortion restrictions that impact universities; one statute requires every abortion to be performed only by a physician licensed in the state. Susan Hochman, associate director for assessment, communications and health information technology for UT Austin University Health Services, told the Daily Texan that the statute prevented every member of the university’s women’s health staff from providing abortions.
Additionally, the Texas General Appropriations Act prohibits abortions funded by federal programs, including public universities, stating “that no funds shall be used to pay the direct or indirect costs (including marketing, overhead, rent, phones, and utilities) of abortion procedures provided by contractors of the Health and Human Services Commission.”
The UT Austin University Health Services website invites those who become pregnant to discuss their options with the university’s women’s health providers and offers to connect them with appropriate resources. At the same time, the site makes clear that it does not provide obstetrical or prenatal services for pregnant students.
Access to abortion in Texas could soon become even more limited. On Sept. 24, Abbott signed separate legislation, scheduled to go into effect in December, that narrows the window in which physicians are allowed to give patients abortion-inducing medication from 10 weeks of pregnancy to seven weeks. Fearful of the new restrictions, some Texans are preparing for a future of mail-order medication abortions or stockpiling pills even though they’re not pregnant.
It’s a far cry from California, where in 2019 Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation requiring student health centers at all 34 California public universities to offer medical abortion. Institutions in California have until 2023 to implement the service. Institutions in other parts of the country -- including Harvard University, Princeton University and Duke University -- cover pregnancy terminations through their student health insurance policies.
Anne-Marie Amies Oelschlager, vice chair of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Clinical Consensus Committee, said in a statement that she talks with patients before they go to college about what to do if they or a friend experiences sexual assault or rape. While many colleges provide bystander intervention training to try to prevent sexual assault, at least one in four female undergraduates experiences rape or sexual assault while in college, she said. For graduate or professional students, that number is 9.7 percent.
“Many people do not consider that they may need access to an abortion when they are choosing a college,” Oelschlager said in a statement. “I have had patients who have scrambled to find rides hundreds of miles from their college towns to be able to find an abortion provider.”
Sarah Prager, co-chair of ACOG’s Abortion Access and Training Expert Work Group and legislative chair of ACOG’s Washington State region, said in a statement that most college health centers offer full-spectrum contraception, including intrauterine device implants, on campus.
When the news first broke that the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Texas could carry out and enforce the ban in September, Walter, the UT student, said she was “heartbroken” and concerned for herself and her peers.
“I remember, when I got the news, I stayed in my room for a while, because that’s what I needed to do to take care of my mental health for that moment,” she said.
Walter said the University Democrats were working to parlay student anger over the abortion ban into a new voter registration boom -- including on site at different abortion rights protests. On Monday, Oct. 4, the organization registered 172 new voters.
“My main thing as president of UDems is getting people to show up to things, to know that it’s OK to make their voices heard, and to be an advocate for themselves and for others,” Walter said.
Ragsdale shared similar sentiments and said she hopes college students register to vote and protect their rights.
“Each individual only has one vote, but they have a huge amount of influence,” Ragsdale said. “They need to influence as many people as they can, help them understand what’s at stake here and why it’s deplorable.”