California became the first state in the country to require its public universities to provide medication abortion on campus after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the “College Student Right to Access Act,” or Senate Bill 24, into law on Friday. The University of California and California State University systems don’t currently offer abortion on campus.
The 34 universities have until January 2023 to comply with the new legislation, time that will be used to assess each campus health center’s ability to provide medication abortion, a first-trimester procedure that involves administering two pills to induce what is effectively a miscarriage. After evaluating “medication abortion readiness,” campus health clinics may also go on to purchase equipment—such as ultrasound machines—train staff, and make sure proper protocols in place.
By the end of the process, roughly 760,000 students in the University of California and California State system will have on-campus access to a form of reproductive healthcare that still remains out of reach for millions of young people across the country, due to the unique obstacles to abortion services college students face.
According to a 2018 study, an estimated 300 to 500 students who attend public universities in California seek out medication abortions each month at off-site health centers.
“It’s about access,” California state Sen. Connie Leyva, who sponsored the bill, told VICE News last month after the bill passed the legislature. “Just because you have a constitutional right, if you don’t have access to that constitutional right, then it’s really no right at all. I’m tired of women being shamed.”
College students face some of the same barriers to abortion access that non-students do: Some might not be able to afford an abortion, which typically costs somewhere between $350 and $950 in the first trimester, or might not have a car, or easy access to public transportation to get there. But students might also be unfamiliar with the town or city their campus is surrounded by, and have a hard time navigating the healthcare system for the first time on their own.
A 2017 study from Advancing New Standards for Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a program within the University of California San Francisco’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences, found students on California campuses travel an average of 38 minutes each way to obtain abortion services. And since obtaining a medication abortion in the state may involve two appointments, that travel time can get multiplied by four.
Not to mention, fake abortion abortion clinics—also known as crisis pregnancy centers—often set up shop right on the outskirts of college campuses. Abortion rights supporters say they do so in the full knowledge that college students usually have no choice but to seek abortion services off-campus, and can’t venture very far to access them. (To make matters worse, these fake clinics still pop up on Google Maps, even after Google launched an investigation into the problem in 2018.)
For students like Zoe Murray, who sought an abortion when she got pregnant as a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seeking care meant her studies suffered: She told the New York Times in September that she was doing so poorly in a class that she had to drop it, because she was “taking too much time out of [her] schedule to get abortion care off campus.”
In an interview with VICE News, she recalled how devastated she was when she had initially gone to her campus health center for abortion services, only to find they couldn’t help.
“My university wasn’t there for me when I needed it,” said Murray, now 23. “I found nothing but silence and stigma and a lack of community."
Ushma Upadhyay, a professor in the ANSIRH program who co-authored the 2017 study, said offering abortion services on campus is a matter of ensuring every student has an equal opportunity to receive an education.
“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 told VICE. “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.”
Carter Sherman contributed reporting.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Marie Solis on Twitter.