Plan B in vending machines. Free at-home pregnancy tests. Time off to get and recover from abortions. Better financial support for student parents.
These are just a handful of the asks, both big and small, that students will make of their colleges and universities on Oct. 6. On what has been dubbed the Day of Action, students across the country plan to hold rallies, protests, strikes and other on-campus demonstrations that will call on university leadership to take steps to protect reproductive and transgender rights.
According to the Graduate Student Action Network, which is organizing the protest along with the Young Democratic Socialists of America, students at more than 50 universities in 28 states will hold events Thursday.
“Because our [elected] representatives are not doing enough to protect our rights, we’re asking our employers and our school administrators to step up,” GSAN co-chair and California Institute of Technology graduate student Rachael Kuintzle told Inside Higher Ed, referring to legislation in certain states that has limited access to abortion since the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to revoke long-standing federal protections for abortion.
According to the organizers, the Day of Action was originally conceived as a way for students to send a message to administrators: that they need to do more to ensure reproductive rights and protect bodily autonomy on campus. But as individuals and student groups on different campuses decided to participate, some sought to change the goal of the protest to suit their campus’s needs. Now student activists from dozens of institutions in states with a range of gender and reproductive health policies plan to use the day to promote such causes as transgender-inclusive health care, support for student parents, increased investment in abortion research and comprehensive sex education.
Still, almost all of these asks remain under the umbrella term of “reproductive justice,” said Kuintzle, citing the definition used by the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective: “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
Melissa Fowler, chief program officer of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association for abortion providers, said that she thinks it is possible that some universities will be willing to listen to and fulfill student protesters’ demands as they join the throngs who have spoken out since Roe v. Wade was overturned just over 100 days ago.
“Protest is an important tool that we have in this country,” she said. “It’s important, in this really critical moment, that people do take action. And that could be in a public protest, which sends a message to their school officials and their elected officials and to others in the community that they support access to abortion care and that they’re not going to just sit back quietly as these rights are taken away.”
At New Mexico State University—which, according to one student activist, already takes a progressive stand on reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ issues—the biggest request that students are making is for medical leave; they want the administration to allow students to take time off as needed for recovery from procedures such as a medical abortion or gender-affirming surgery. Currently, medical leave is available at professors’ discretion.
“We focused on making sure that the school supports students in accessing these needs,” said Gauge Burnett, a graduate student at NMSU.
Students within the City University of New York system want their institutions to support individuals who live in states that restrict abortion access by offering them scholarships and in-state tuition. At the California Institute of Technology and Columbia University, students are asking their institutions to expand eligibility for childcare subsidies for graduate student parents and to increase the value of such subsidies.
In red states—especially those with so-called trigger laws—the demands look a little different. Katharine Dupree, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas and the other GSAN co-chair, has consulted with the health center at her flagship public university to determine how it can legally support reproductive health without breaking the law.
“We are working together to incorporate information about reproductive health care on the health center website [and] looking at the regulations that may allow us to provide free pregnancy tests without a consultation,” she told Inside Higher Ed in an email.
When Inside Higher Ed reached out to the University of Arkansas for comment on the students’ requests, a university spokesperson responded via email, “The health and well-being of our students and campus community is a top priority of the University of Arkansas. The Pat Walker Health Center, the university’s on-campus health care facility, is dedicated to this responsibility and will abide by state and federal law.”
Still, Kuintzle said, some of the Arkansas students’ other demands—like streamlined name-change processes and flexible medical leave policies—are surprisingly similar to those of students in blue states.
“Students don’t have great health care in any state … [and] a lot of states are really behind in their trans-inclusive policies,” she said.
Fowler said it makes sense that students are pushing their universities to promote reproductive rights and abortion access, given that colleges often play a major role in students’ health.
“For a lot of students, university is the place where they get their health care, so it would be the first place they would go to access any kind of health-care service, including sexual and reproductive health,” she said. ”So, universities should be set up to provide a full range of options and comprehensive care to help people really be able to access care quickly.”
When students can’t get the health-care services they need on campus, Fowler added, they are more likely to turn to sources like crisis pregnancy centers—centers that look like medical facilities but usually lack clinical staff and aim to encourage pregnant individuals to give birth. That makes it all the more crucial that campuses expand access to things like pregnancy tests, she said.
While campus activists and organizations crafted their individual demands, GSAN published an open letter asking President Biden to supply monthly pregnancy tests to all Americans who can get pregnant. The letter also urges the president to declare a public health emergency “to ensure that abortion pills like mifepristone can be provided legally by mail for free to people residing in any state regardless of any abortion restrictions in place, and to ensure medication providers are legally protected.” GSAN also published a letter imploring Congress to protect abortion access, gender-affirming health care, free access to contraception and federally mandated sex education.
‘Movement for Change’
Just as student demands vary from institution to institution, so, too, will Thursday’s events. Some campus groups are planning rallies, strikes and walkouts, while others are holding smaller-scale gatherings, like information sessions.
At NMSU, the Day of Action coincides with midterms, so instead of a large protest, activists will be setting up stations to provide students with information about reproductive health—especially where to get safe abortions, since a number of crisis pregnancy centers have moved into the area recently, according to Burnett.
Activists at Caltech, on the other hand, plan to hold a large rally with multiple speakers, in addition to educating students about Proposition 1, a ballot measure that would enshrine abortion protections into California’s constitution. They will also hand out free emergency contraception—drugs that can prevent pregnancy when taken shortly after sex by delaying ovulation or preventing implantation.
Burnett, the student activist from NMSU, said that he is hopeful that the wide scope of the GSAN and YDSA event will make it more impactful.
“We’re making demands at the local, the state and the national level,” he said. “This is a movement for change at every level of government and labor, within academia and beyond.”