COLUMBUS, Ohio — JUNE 26: Unni Shreram, a 19-year-old junior at Ohio State University from Dublin, June 26, 2023, at the Ohio Union in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original article.)
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has added lots of stress and uncertainty to Unni Shreram’s life.
As a 19-year-old junior at Ohio State University, she is part of a wider demographic of college students who face specific challenges when it comes to abortion access.
“As a young person of reproductive age, this could very well be relevant in my life,” she said.
“College is already a very stressful time. … trying to add abortion care, or even having a child at this stage of life, I just can’t fathom it. … We’re not really in the stage of life where we’re ready for that responsibility.”
With the Dobbs decision leading to state-level legislation, so much of what care looks like is still in limbo, especially as the Ohio legislature goes back and forth on whether or not they will push through a full abortion ban, and as court battles continue for a six-week ban implemented immediately after Dobbs fell. That ban is currently on hold pending litigation.
“Were the Ohio ban ultimately to take effect, it would have a significant impact on late teens and people in their early 20s,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health.
According to Miller, new studies show at least 1 in 4 college-bound students are taking their reproductive health into consideration as they decide where they’ll head for higher education.
“It’s important for people who are … getting an education, because they want to set themselves up for a future beyond that time,” Miller said. “Not being able to access abortion care when that’s what’s best for you can really throw off your life course.”
Barriers to empowerment
College students face many unique barriers to abortion access.
“Not having money or not having a car virtually makes that almost impossible for someone who may find themselves in need of an abortion to receive one,” said Kalena Speicher, a 21-year-old senior at Kent State University.
Transportation is a big challenge. College students don’t always have cars or reliable transportation and most college towns don’t have an abortion clinic.
“Young people don’t have the same ability that other people do to travel across state lines and things,” said Olivia Woods, Ohio senior state organizer for Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE). “They face financial barriers when it comes to paying for expensive procedures, and it can put young people … in a place of uncertainty.”
Ohio has six surgical abortion clinics located in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Bedford Heights, Cuyahoga Falls, and Dayton. The closest abortion clinic to Ohio University is more than an hour away and the nearest surgical abortion clinic to Bowling Green State University is about two hours away.
And even if there is an abortion clinic in the same city as a college, they are often not near campuses. Columbus’ Planned Parenthood East Health Center is about 10 miles away from Ohio State’s campus.
There’s also a 24-hour waiting period in Ohio, meaning women have to go to an abortion clinic twice.
College students are usually still on their parents’ health insurance, which can be another potential barrier.
“If they wouldn’t approve of you getting an abortion, how are you supposed to finance that?” Shreram said. “For college students, abortion care really is not that accessible for the price.”
Shreya Basu, a 23-year-old senior at Kent State, echoed that sentiment.
“Obviously being poor all the time is also a major barrier,” she said.
But having reproductive health access for college-age individuals is as important, if not more important, because that time of life is typically the first time 18-24 year olds will experience adult decisions, independence, and transitioning away from parental oversight.
“They need access to accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about their bodies,” Woods said. “They need resources on if they want to continue pregnancies, or what happens if they miscarriage, which a lot of people don’t know requires the same kind of medical care and procedures.”
Brick walls to access can often come with the color of one’s skin or one’s gender identity as well, according to Woods. Black and indigenous groups and LGBTQ+ young people, for example, already face issues with discrimination and limited care for specific needs like gender-affirming care without the struggle of finding reproductive care they can afford.
“Young people experience less empowerment, and that experience weighs a lot differently on people who have marginalized experiences,” Woods told the OCJ. “That can really impact somebody’s ability to take care of themselves.”
Missing classes because of an abortion and potentially having to tell your professors can also be barriers.
“How do you tell your professor, ‘Oh, I just had an abortion, I can’t come to class,” said Shreram, who wants to be a pediatrician.
As a way to help make reproductive care more accessible to students on campus, Kent State Students for a Democratic Society worked to help get generic Plan B sold over the counter in one of the campus dining halls markets starting this fall.
“To have (college) derailed by an unwanted pregnancy can be particularly devastating at this stage in your life,” Basu said. “You’re broke … you barely have a job yet.”
Getting pregnant and having a child in college is not in the cards for many students, Shreram said.
“Access to these resources … would offer peace of mind that would enable people to have college be the safe space where they can explore their sexuality,” she said.
Bans and the future of health care
Many students living at a college or university rely on campus health services for their medical care, and the range of health care isn’t consistent at every institution.
Miller said it’s important for young people to research what kind of care they’ll be able to get at one institution or another, especially as religiously-affiliated colleges and universities could limit the ability for students to access contraception or abortion-related care, including resources or information on those topics.
“Even without Ohio’s abortion ban, there are colleges and universities that refuse to provide the full range of health care,” Miller said.
A lack of provisions for abortion or contraceptive care can also impact pregnancy-related care, and with transportation or monetary issues, getting care off campus isn’t always an option.
“(Students) are not going to college thinking they’ll have unintended pregnancies,” Miller said.
As for navigating an uncertain world of reproductive laws and access to care, making one’s voice heard is just as important as it in any other legislative effort.
“The vast majority of this country overwhelmingly supports reproductive rights,” Miller said.
So voting in primaries and general elections, researching available care at institutions and urging transparency in services offered at colleges and universities are all vital for protection.
“Fight for access to those services,” Miller said. “Demand options for counseling and referrals.”
August Special Election
Ohio is set to vote in an Aug. 8 special election on a ballot measure that would raise the voting threshold to amend the Ohio Constitution, making it harder for voters to change the state constitution. That could impact another vote in November, in which abortion rights activists put forth a constitutional amendment that would cement reproductive rights into state law.
Woods is confident in the power of young people to make changes for their own health, as she sees young people joining in on petition drives that would allow the ballot measure on abortion to appear on November ballots.
“There’s always been young people power, there will always be young people power, and I think historically we’ve seen that underestimated,” Woods said.
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