Opinion: Expanding Abortion Access on Campus with SB 24

by Nick Draper, Annie McDonald, and Larkin Turman
Health Policy Group at the Goldman School of Public Policy

Across the nation, the right to autonomy in reproductive health decisions is in jeopardy. The current presidential administration, hostile state governments, and judicial appointees are all seeking to restrict access to abortion care. The future of Roe v. Wade is in question, putting women and individuals with uteruses as close to losing the autonomy to make their own reproductive health decisions as they have been since 1973. Even without a Supreme Court ruling against abortion, many people effectively cannot obtain an abortion right now, due to institutional barriers to reproductive health care access, particularly impacting people in rural areas, low-income individuals, and people of color. 

Against this backdrop, California has taken the opportunity to significantly expand access to reproductive health care by closing one of the last remaining gaps in abortion services in the state with SB 24, the College Student Right to Access Act. SB 24 requires public colleges and universities in California to provide medication abortions at campus health centers, where many students receive much of their regular care. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 24 last Friday, ensuring that UC and CSU students have ready access to this essential part of their health care. 

According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, between 322 and 519 students at California’s public universities seek medication abortions every month. However, as university health centers currently do not provide abortion services, students are forced to travel off-campus to access this vital aspect of their health care. As many as 62 percent of students at California public universities live more than 30 minutes from the closest abortion facility via public transportation. Students juggling busy class schedules, often on top of work and family obligations, should not be forced to travel such long distances to access health care. 

Even in our own backyard, students face these challenges. Berkeley has one of the highest rates of medication abortion of all California public universities, and while Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the country, there is no Planned Parenthood facility in the city of Berkeley. The closest facilities are located in West Oakland and El Cerrito, which are each about 30 minutes away from campus on public transit, the most common means of transportation for Berkeley students. Additionally, the nearest abortion provider is not open for weekend care, forcing students to travel for an abortion during the week, when they may have class or work obligations. Since a follow-up visit to a health care provider is often required, accessing abortion care can take up to two hours or more in travel time alone.  

Cost of care also poses a significant barrier to abortion access. On average, medication abortions cost $604. For a student population already overburdened with student loans, a sky-high cost of living in California, and limited opportunity to make money by working, these costs can be astronomical and even unmanageable. At $604, it would take more than 50 hours of minimum wage work in California to pay for a medication abortion.   

Additionally, the average wait time for the first available appointment off-campus is one week. While a one-week wait may be feasible for many other health procedures, it is often not an option in the case of abortion care, as time is literally of the essence; students who no longer wish to be pregnant beyond 10 weeks from conception must opt for much more expensive surgical abortions. The Student Health Insurance Program at Berkeley (SHIP) covers medication and surgical abortions at 100%, which is laudable, but without abortion care at the Tang Center on campus, students who are seeking abortions must go through a referral process to access abortion care at an outside provider, which can take precious time before even getting an appointment for an abortion. For students on campus who are not on SHIP but who receive care at the Tang Center, abortion may not be covered at all, and those students still face the same administrative barriers of having to access abortion care off-campus. 

The California legislature took a huge step toward increased access to health care for the California public university student population with SB 24. Governor Brown previously vetoed a similar bill; the Health Policy Group applauds Governor Newsom for not making the same mistake, and for signing SB 24 to demonstrate his support of bodily autonomy and equitable access to health care and abortion care for all California college students. 

Nick Draper, Annie McDonald, and Larkin Turman are Master of Public Policy candidates at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Nick and Annie are also Senior Editors of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

This article is an opinion piece, and the opinions expressed represent the author alone. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.