For more than a year, there’s been a pioneering effort underway by students at UC Berkeley to dramatically broaden the access that women on campus have to abortion.
The effort comes from members of a campus pro-choice group called the Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley. They’ve been trying to make medication abortion—colloquially termed the “abortion pill”—available on their campus. They reached out to fellow undergraduate and graduate students and faculty to drum up support through a student government referendum. They even secured funding from the school.
Still, despite petitions demonstrating campus support for providing access to medication abortion–which consists of two pills taken 24 to 48 hours apart, and which can be administered by a nurse practitioner to end a pregnancy within the first 10 weeks–the students say the university administration has yet to follow through and implement the referendum, citing security concerns.
Now, the issue has spilled over beyond Berkeley.
A California state senator recently introduced a bill which would require University of California, California State University, and community college campuses that use state funding to provide medication abortion at their health centers. If the bill passes, California could become the first state to require campuses to provide medication abortion on campus.
I spoke with the three co-directors of Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley–Marandah Field-Elliot, Adiba Khan, and Elizabeth Wells–about their fight.
“Because I am from Oklahoma, I thought moving [to California] everything was relatively pretty easy in accessing abortion,” Adiba Khan, one of the co-directors of Students United for Reproductive Justice at Berkeley, told me over the phone. “But the reality is that even students here where there are clinics in the area still have to go through all these different bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining an abortion.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you become aware of the need for access to medication abortion on Berkeley’s campus?
Adiba Khan: We first went to our health center and we discovered that the student health insurance plan covers abortion, but they didn’t provide it [on campus]. [I also met] two other peers in one of my classes who have actually attempted to get an abortion through the Tang Center [the on-campus health center] but were met with academic, mental, and financial burdens.
What were those burdens?
Adiba Khan: When a student tries to get an abortion through our health center, they have to do mandatory counseling. The peers that I know that went through this didn’t like it because they didn’t really want to tell any more people that they wanted an abortion.
Then, you get a referral and have to set up an appointment with an off-campus provider.
What people would do sometimes is just skip going to the health center and just try to go to Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood used to be considered out of network. We’ve managed to get rid of the financial burden. Abortion is now 100% covered because of our efforts, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s still not as easily accessible as it should be, like it would be if it were at our health center.
Why did you choose to focus your efforts on access to medication abortion on campus?
Adiba Khan: We were just wondering why something as simple as a medication abortion, which is just two pills, isn’t also provided when it really could easily be filled because the health insurance does cover it.
Marandah Field-Elliot: It’s only two pills and it can be administered by a nurse practitioner, so we saw that it was really logistically easy and simple for our campus health center to incorporate that into the services it provides.
This all happened last year, but medication abortion still isn’t available on your campus. Can you explain why?
Adiba Khan: In order to add this service there was going to have to be money allocated–to move things around at Tang and make the health center a little more safe–so we went ahead and applied [to an internal fund called the Wellness Initiative Fund] and we got around $120,000 a year for two years.
While the medical directors were on board with this, they needed approval and support from our administration. We ended up being denied despite all our efforts in mobilizing and finding support from the Berkeley community. The reason was that the costs of upgrading security, because of the uncertainty of what anti-choice protesters would look like, would amount to something that we definitely could not afford.
Marandah Field-Elliot: The other issue was a fear of the university losing out on research funding because now we have Donald Trump as our president, which was a valid concern. But also, at the same time, there’s many other things that this university does that would constitute revoking our research funding by Donald Trump’s criteria. The fear was that doing this on our own without any other university in California would just put Berkeley in a negative spotlight and be even more vulnerable to violence.
Now there’s a new California state senate bill proposed which would require medication abortion to be available not only at Berkeley, but at all UCs, CSUs, and community colleges. Do you have a connection to that bill?
Elizabeth Wells: I was a community college student before I came to Berkeley. It is very difficult to access and afford services when you’re juggling a family or a job. I know people who have gone to get abortions and they’re faced with huge protests and anti-choicers outside, and if people were able to access abortion on their campuses or the school system was involved, it would make that process much more easy.
Marandah Field-Elliot: We were reached out to about this bill by a couple of organizations that are helping the senator. We were able to give input onto some first drafts of the bill, which was awesome. I think this bill is fantastic politically because it won’t be concentrating all the anti-abortion activists onto one campus. It’ll be spread out throughout California and will drastically increase access to medication abortion throughout the state.
What feedback did you give on the proposed bill?
Adiba Khan: Originally, the bill just mandated medication abortion to be available at all public universities that have on-campus health centers, but we addressed the fact that doesn’t mean that much if the school doesn’t provide health insurance that actually covers the service. So they included the health insurance component after we talked to them, to make sure that the student health insurance plan also covers abortion.
In addition, there was a reference to counseling and we felt that it was appropriate to change just counseling to “scientifically accurate counseling” because counseling can be arbitrary–that can be actually counseling that tries to talk someone out of getting the service.
What happens next?
Marandah Field-Elliot: We feel that especially with legislation that was inspired by student activism, student activists need to be heard by legislators that are going to be voting on this bill, so we want to bring out as many students as possible to tell their stories.
Adiba Khan: We have started our efforts just at UC Berkeley, but now that our efforts transformed into something that will hopefully impact the entire state if this bill passes, we’re really hoping it won’t just be California. We hope that this project will succeed in changing the way we all look at abortion.
A spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President told me that the office is still reviewing the proposed state bill and has not taken a position on it. Nobody from the Tang Center would speak with me on the phone (they said “scheduling” issues prevented it), but a spokesperson provided me with the following statement:
Officials at the Tang Center fully support a woman’s right to choose and have long provided contraceptives, including the “morning after pill” (which is not to be confused with the “medication abortion” pills indicated in the proposed bill) as well as referrals to nearby facilities for abortion services. There are four facilities within four miles of the Berkeley campus that provide medication abortion pills or perform surgical abortions.We are aware of the students’ interest in this issue and have been in meetings with them to discuss their concerns. Those meetings and conversations continue. Student leaders we are working with have shifted their current efforts to SB 320. Now that the focus has shifted to legislation that would create a system-wide policy, the UC Office of the President will take the lead on responding to questions, as it does with all matters concerning legislation.
Note: This article initially quoted Adiba Khan as saying that UC Berkeley did not have trained abortion providers on campus. After it was published, Khan told us that the school does, in fact, have such providers.