How to Support Students in Anti-Abortion States

Between the time female students left our campuses last semester and when they returned for the fall semester, they lost a constitutionally protected right that women had enjoyed for 50 years—autonomy and freedom to make decisions about reproductive health. The loss of this right is due to the Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Decision weakens the livelihoods of women in our country, from their health to their educational and economic opportunities. Colleges in states where lawmakers have used or intend to use the court’s decision to further restrict access to abortion must be proactive in supporting their female students.

I am not advocating for college leaders to break the law or become a test case, and I fully understand that the fiduciary responsibility of college leadership limits their tolerance for risk. But there is much that leaders can and should do for their students, all within the limits of the law.

Show empathy. Some university leaders stepped forward and then made eloquent statements dobbs, decipher the beginning of our postroe World. I am grateful to these leaders for making strong, public statements. At the same time, I do not condemn those who have not made such statements. These moments present presidents with a difficult balance between personal beliefs and what is best for their institution as a whole.

Because abortion is such a divisive and emotional issue in this country, divisive public statements could undermine the leaders’ effectiveness, particularly their ability to raise funds.

But many students will come onto campus this fall feeling more vulnerable, more exposed, less powerful, and less in control of their bodies and destiny. These students deserve empathy from their leaders. Whether through public statements or internal actions, college leaders need to acknowledge that the ground has changed this summer and it will be a painful shift for many in our community. That may feel like a balancing act for some presidents, but it’s the balancing act that requires good leadership.

Provide guidance to employees. We must accept the fact that students will have sex. As a result, leaders are faced with the likelihood that there will be at least one unwanted pregnancy in their student body this fall. For us, to think differently would mean burying our heads in the sand.

And when these students reach out to faculty members or advisors or trainers or consultants or healthcare workers, how should those staff members respond? In our burgeoning and chaotic post-roe In the world few understand exactly what is legal or illegal. Can they refer a student to the local Planned Parenthood? Can you inform a student about publicly available “abortion finder” websites? If they drive a student out of state and are sued for “aiding and abetting,” will the college support them legally and financially? Can you loan a student money for reproductive health care? Do conversations they have with students need to be disclosed?

Our college communities need clear do’s and don’ts. These guidelines will vary from state to state, even campus to campus, and will depend heavily on risk tolerance.

In Oklahoma, as an example of how each state has its own set of complications, our Legislature enacted a criminal ban on abortion on top of an existing trigger ban, each criminalizing slightly different acts with different exceptions and different penalties. Which one prevails? And these criminal bans are superimposed on top of two civilly-enforced bans, one copying Texas’ six-week ban with very limited exceptions, and the other banning abortion in fertilization with slightly broader exceptions. How do these two laws work together?

The legal advice provided by university leaders to their staff may not always be satisfactory. But employees deserve to know that the college will support them as long as they stay within certain parameters.

Double down on contraception, pregnancy testing, and health care for women on campus. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, colleges became adept at responding to emerging health needs. Many set up test stations and provided students and employees with masks, thermometers and cleaning products. Universities could also expand their commitment to women’s reproductive health. Here are a few ideas:

  • Install free contraceptive machines in every dorm.
  • Distribute emergency contraceptive pills (Plan B) and pregnancy tests to all students.
  • Maintain a 24-hour hotline that answers questions about pregnancy testing, contraception, and emergency contraception.
  • Integrate reproductive health conversations into orientation classes, first-year experiential classes, and training of all RAs and peer advisors.
  • If your campus health clinic doesn’t offer gynecological or other health care for women, expand student offerings and access by partnering with a technology-based company focused on women’s health.

Clarify internal rules and guidelines. Colleges in states with civil enforcement of abortion bans face additional problems. Will some residents and peer counselors, roommates or roommates try to make $10,000 bonuses by filing civil lawsuits based on classmates’ private and often distressing reproductive choices? In this environment, caution and mistrust could quickly erode the relationships and trust that underpin a college community, and no doubt feed the fear and loneliness that already lies at the heart of our campuses’ mental health crisis.

Each community has rules for membership. The law provides a lower limit, but not always an upper limit. Colleges have their own rules that members must follow, and they can usually be found in staff handbooks and student codes of conduct. General Counsel Offices should investigate changing manuals and codes of conduct to isolate the type of late-night peer-to-peer confessions that could be used as fodder for bounty-hunting civil lawsuits. Otherwise, the bonds so essential to our college living and learning communities could easily unravel and be replaced by tensions and divisions.

Institutions are confronted with new realities in the post.roe Epoch. How they deal with these realities will soon influence such important decisions as where academics contribute their talents, where students begin their college journey, and where donors invest their dollars.

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