Protests erupted on the University of Chicago’s campus earlier this week after a member of the student council proposed a resolution prohibiting the use of a college fund for abortion care, according to the school’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.
The resolution stated that none of the funds allocated by the College Council could go toward abortion except in instances of rape or incest, or in the event that a physician certifies that continuing the pregnancy would put the person's health or life at risk. It was introduced by Brett Barbin, the president of the school’s chapter of College Republicans and a senior representative on the council.
The funds in question come from the school’s Emergency Fund, which is intended to fill gaps in need for low-income students. Though it's primarily supported through independent student fundraising, the fund recently received $1,000 in leftover money from the College Council, a subsect of the student government that receives some funding from required student fees. “Students should not be financially compelled to violate their sincerely held moral beliefs,” reads the bill text.
The language of the resolution—and the measures it outlines—parallels the Trump administration’s attempts to place restrictions on abortion funding and strengthen religious protections. And after two weeks of anti-abortion lawmakers bringing the fight to roll back federal abortion rights to a fever pitch, it seemed to some UChicago students that the national discourse had found its way to their campus, despite the school being located in one of the most pro-choice states in the country.
“I saw this as a pathetic attempt to join the coordinated Republican attack on reproductive rights nationwide,” said Jahne Brown, chair of the College Council and co-founder of the Emergency Fund.
“The Emergency Fund helps the poorest and most marginalized students on campus,” she continued. “Some of the students we've helped would have had to drop out or take extended time off if they didn't receive our help. This bill, just like the bans introduced all over the country, affects people of color and the poor more than anything.”
Brown and her co-founder, Marlin Figgins, created the fund after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, as a way to help DACA students pay to renew their status; they later went on to expand it to address a wider array of student need. They say that while most students use the Emergency Fund to pay for groceries, rent, and other bills, they’ve always made clear that students could use it to finance abortions and other reproductive health services as well.
But Brown said she’d wanted to reaffirm that fact amid national threats to abortion rights, and reminded students that the Emergency Fund covered abortions in a since-deleted May 16th Facebook post. “Abortions are a good thing!” the post read. “The Emergency Fund supports and funds abortions proudly! If you need help paying for an abortion we are here for you!”
Barbin, the student who introduced the resolution, cited Brown’s post in his bill, and said “several students” reached out to him to say they found the idea that the funds could be used for abortion services “distressing.” Barbin says his resolution had nothing to do with national debates about abortion, and everything to do with the concerns of his peers, and the notion that a member of the student government—Brown—had taken an explicit stance in favor of abortion.
“It should be made clear: my bill was not a campus abortion ban in the vein of recent legislation in Alabama, Georgia, and other states,” he said. “I certainly could have chosen a better time to introduce this legislation which would not have conflated [those laws] with this policy proposal in the minds of some students.”
The tensions resulted in a Tuesday demonstration of more than 250 students, according to the Maroon—the vast majority of them opposed to Barbin’s position, holding signs that read “My Body My Choice” and “I stand with Planned Parenthood.” Barbin says about 20 students expressed solidarity with him, while Figgins estimates it was closer to half a dozen. A livestream preceding a vote on Barbin’s resolution shows testimony from six students who opposed the use of the funds for abortion.
When Brown called the vote, the bill failed 15 to 1, Barbin’s being the sole vote in favor of it.
Also this week, the California state Senate passed the College Student Right to Access Act, a bill that would require publicly funded California universities to provide medication abortion in their on-campus health centers. The bill is now headed to the California assembly.
Ushma Upadhyay, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, says young people on college campuses face certain obstacles to abortion access that are unique to them. Often, needing an abortion means traveling to an unfamiliar town or city, and navigating a healthcare system much more vast and opaque than the confines of an on-campus student health center. And since many college students don’t have cars on campus, they must rely on public transportation to get to an abortion provider .
In her research with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, Upadhyay found that, for students on California campuses, that means missing classes and coursework, and traveling an average of 38 minutes one way. Obtaining a medication abortion requires a minimum of two visits to a doctor in the state—so multiply that travel time by four.
Upadhyay and her fellow researchers found that many California colleges had the ability to scale their health centers to begin providing abortion services, some saying they only required some additional equipment, like an ultrasound machine.
“If students have an unwanted pregnancy and choose to carry it to term, the university should provide resources for that student and support them,” she said. “But there are many students who would choose abortion, and it’s really important for a university—in terms of gender equity—to make that option available.” Easing financial barriers is a must, she said, but there are ways universities can remove other significant barriers to abortion for their students.
“Yes, that emergency fund should cover abortions, but they should ask for even more!” Upadhyay said. “Student health centers should be providing this basic health care. [The California legislation] shines a light on what they should be asking for.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated Brown had deleted a May 16th Facebook post. However, the post only appeared to have been taken down because she had temporarily set her profile to private.