Abortion pills to be available at California colleges under law signed by Gavin Newsom

Zoe Murray was 20 and a sophomore at the University of California, Santa Barbara when she found out she was pregnant. She said she knew right away she wanted an abortion.

But when Murray went to her campus medical clinic seeking the “abortion pill,” she was referred to a provider in downtown Santa Barbara — 11 miles and a 45-minute bus ride away.

It was very stressful to learn I was pregnant in the first place,” Murray said. “I felt that would be the most comfortable method for me to go to my student health center and receive this medication and go home and have an abortion in the comfort of my own space.”

Her experience led to her lobby for a law that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on Friday requiring California public universities to provide medication abortion through campus clinics by 2023. Former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year.

Newsom in a written statement contrasted the goals of the new law with a spate of abortion restrictions recently adopted by more conservative states, some of which effectively outlaw abortion.

“As other states and the federal government go backward, restricting reproductive freedom, in California we are moving forward, expanding access and reaffirming a woman’s right choose,” Newsom said. “We’re removing barriers to reproductive health – increasing access on college campuses and using technology to modernize how patients interact with providers.”

State Sen. Connie Leyva first crafted the legislation three years ago with stories like Murray’s in mind. The requirement will ensure students like Murray, and an estimated 500 public university women, from having to miss class or skip work to leave campus in search of the medication, Leyva said.

“I am tired of women being shamed for having an abortion. No one knows anyone else’s story and no one has the right to tell someone what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” Leyva said. “We heard from so many students who heard they were pregnant and knew they had to end the pregnancy. They had to miss work, they had to miss class. The student ends up spending weeks trying to get these services when they can just literally walk across campus and have it provided to them.”

Former Gov. Brown rejected Leyva’s analysis last year, when he argued the average five-mile distance to abortion clinics was not “unreasonable” and that services are already “widely available off campus.”

Opposition from Catholic, religious groups

Student organizations rallied behind Leyva when she re-submitted her bill earlier this year.

“Students are the ones who are impacted by this legislation, so student voices are what matters,” said Phoebe Abramowitz, a 2019 Berkeley graduate and member of the bill’s sponsor, Students United for Reproductive Justice. “We know what we need and want. And that’s abortion access on campus in our on-campus clinics.”

Religious and conservative groups have criticized medication abortions as unsafe and raised concerns over student fees supporting a medication they disagree with. Catholic organizations objected to the bill at hearings in the Legislature.

“We oppose any effort to make it easier to abort a baby before he or she is born,” said Rudra Reddy, external vice president for the Berkeley College Republicans. “Newsom is opposed to the moratorium on the death penalty in California but he’s perfectly fine executing unborn children.”

Republican lawmakers routinely voted against the measure during committee hearings, and a handful of Assembly Democrats abstained from casting their votes during their chamber’s floor debate.

A life-changing experience

The Department of Finance, which reports to Newsom’s office, also opposed the measure, citing a lack of resources, personnel expertise and private fund dollars that could support such a program of its “size, scope or content.” Committee reports priced the implementation at “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

CSU did not take a position on SB 24, but UC President Janet Napolitano wrote in an Aug. 22 letter that the system was prepared to comply with the proposed law.

The abortion pill is considered safe and effective, according to Planned Parenthood. A woman takes two medications within two days, which prompts cramping and bleeding while the uterus expels the pregnancy. The medication is limited to women who are less than 10 weeks pregnant.

“It’s a very simple service to offer. It seems like it would be a very feasible thing for clinicians at student health centers to do,” said Daniel Grossman, an abortion provider and UC San Francisco professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences.

Grossman said it’s important that student health centers invest in new equipment and train clinic staff on “wrap around services.” He recommended making a 24-hour phone line available for students to call in case they have a question or complaint about their experience.

Murray, the former UC Santa Barbara student, would not say whether she had a medication abortion. She said her search for the service as a UC student ultimately inspired her career ambitions. She spent the last leg of her student life advocating for abortion rights on campus, and she hopes that experience will lead to a job in reproductive health in Los Angeles, where she now lives.

I think it’s really important for people to understand from a student’s perspective seeking medication abortion on campus and being denied,” she said. “I don’t think any other student should have to go through the experience that I did.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.