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California legislature sends bill requiring colleges offer abortion pill to governor’s desk

"We have very few opportunities to expand reproductive rights and access to abortion like this bill will -- just because of the current political climate."

Doctor and woman reading digital tablet
Doctor and woman reading digital tablet

What started off as a student-led movement to get one California college to offer medication abortion on campus turned into state legislation mandating all public universities provide students’ access to the pill — and it’s poised to become law.

The bill, SB 320 or the “College Student Right to Access Act,” was sent to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk on Thursday, after it passed the state Senate. The legislation is unprecedented, and was dreamed up by a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley who wanted their campus health centers to provide comprehensive health care services. Should Brown sign the measure into law, dozens of University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) campuses will provide students the abortion pill by January 2022.

Private donors have already agreed to front the costs associated, like buying new equipment, training staff, or providing telehealth services.

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The bill aims to provide a much needed service to students. Every month, up to 519 students at 34 UC and CSU campuses try to get the abortion pill at off-site facilities and many face obstacles in the process, according to a recent study. Cost and travel are huge barriers: half of students attending the UC and CSU system are low-income; two-thirds of UC students and one-third of CSU students do not have a car. Scheduling time in between classes is also an issue, the study found, as only 15 percent of abortion providers near these campuses are open on the weekends.

The bill started as a resolution drafted by the Berkeley student group Students United for Reproductive Justice but was met with resistance, said Marandah Field-Elliot, the co-director of the organization and recent graduate.

Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley before a state hearing on medication abortion bill.
Credit: Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley
Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley before a state hearing on medication abortion bill. Credit: Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley

“The UC Berkeley administration was concerned given that no other public university in California provides medication abortion at their campus health center — at that point, they were concerned about the risk of being the first and perhaps the attention that would draw,” Field-Elliot told ThinkProgress in February.

This garnered a bit of press — which got the attention of The Women’s Foundation of California and state Senator Connie Leyva, who were inspired to write a bill pushing all public universities to offer the abortion pill.

Medication abortion — which terminates early pregnancies once patients take two FDA-approved pills within 24 hours of each other — is safe and clinically simple. And providing this medication at student health centers effectively destigmatizes abortion in a moment particularly hostile to reproductive rights and justice activists.

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“We have very few opportunities to expand reproductive rights and access to abortion like this bill will — just because of the current political climate,” said Field-Elliot.

“It’s almost impossible nationally right now to do any expansion so implementing medication abortion at UC health centers will not only provide such meaningful services to students but also expand the conversation around abortion, and say that yes it is able to be provided at a primary care center — it is part of regular health care.”

Field-Elliot hopes when this bill passes that it inspires other activists to champion similar legislation in their own states.

Of course, there’s plenty of pushback from the anti-abortion crowd. Already, a deceptive article suggesting free abortion pills will be pushed on “all students” was taken down, according to PolitiFact.