Fighting uncertainty with information, student advocacy prevails, even in the states where reproductive rights have been most attacked.
When Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) graduate student Cheyenne Sanchez was growing up in McAllen — the largest city Hidalgo County, Texas — students were not required to take any form of sexual health education until high school. Sanchez chose to take the course at the end of their senior year, but the education received was reductive and completely incomprehensive. Taught by the school volleyball coach, the class was 30 minutes long and mainly focused on STDs, using photos of genital warts and gonorrhea to scare students into abstinence and only briefly mentioning condoms and the birth control pill as contraceptive options.
Similarly, the State of Tennessee does not have a requirement for sex-ed in public schools. If a curriculum is implemented, it must emphasize abstinence and does not have to be comprehensive. Consequently, graduates of Tennessee high schools enter college with varying, often limited levels of knowledge on sexual and reproductive health. In Louisiana, there are no requirements at all for teaching sexual health in schools.
Now, the same students who grew up in states that lacked comprehensive sex-ed are facing extreme threats to their reproductive healthcare in college following the Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which resulted in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. While people everywhere were affected by the decision’s implications on healthcare access, those in states with restrictive abortion laws were especially impacted. Thirteen states had passed “trigger laws” that imposed near-total or complete bans on abortions immediately following Roe v. Wade’s overturn.
College students are uniquely vulnerable to changes in reproductive healthcare access as they live in insulated communities and are often dependent on the resources within their campus and as provided by their student health center. According to Gretchen Ely, PhD, MSW, a professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s (UTK) College of Social Work whose research focuses on access to reproductive healthcare, most college students are also subjected to the reproductive health laws of their home state. While a student may opt to attend a school in a state where abortion is still legal, the vast majority of college students attend a school within their home state due to the financial burdens of out-of-state tuition and additional costs (i.e., transportation, accommodations). Students who cannot afford to attend private or out-of-state academic institutions may already face socioeconomic health disparities that impact their health literacy and access to healthcare, and the inability to obtain an abortion can exacerbate these existing disparities.
“While people everywhere were affected by the decision’s implications on healthcare access, those in states with restrictive abortion laws – particularly “trigger laws” which imposed a near-total or complete ban on abortions – were especially impacted.”
In states with more restrictive laws, student health centers may be discouraged from even sharing referrals for abortion care. Combined with the existing lack of sexual education, students may be unaware of where to turn and consequently self-manage abortions. While the abortion pill can be mailed to any state in the US and is both safe and effective, it is still preferable to have access to a healthcare provider while undergoing medical treatment.
Ely stresses that the inability to navigate an abortion with a medical professional “increases unnecessary risk.” While unlikely, if a complication does occur, students may be reluctant to seek medical assistance out of fear of legal prosecution (though, Tennessee law is currently focused on penalizing abortion providers and does not allow for the prosecution of abortion seekers), according to Ely. If a student has access to a car or public transportation, they may instead opt to travel outside of the state to obtain abortion care from a medical professional. Under these unfamiliar circumstances, unforeseen challenges arise, such as arranging transportation and lodging, and add additional costs to the existing burden of funding the procedure itself. While abortion funds can provide financial assistance, limited knowledge around abortion services imposes barriers to affordable care, as students may not be aware of the funds’ existence or know where to find clear information.
Student anxiety around pregnancy prevention, sexual health, and access to abortion services has increased following the Dobbs decision, overwhelmingly due to the uncertainty around future access to care. “There is a lot of misinformation about US abortion laws now in general. For example, prior to Dobbs, there was a reproductive health center in the neighborhood adjacent to the UTK for the last 47 years. That provider has now closed,” Ely said. The closest legal abortion provider is now in Asheville, NC, approximately 115 miles away from campus. Ely emphasizes that even that access is “likely precarious,” as the longevity of the law is unknown.
At Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, the Gynecology Clinic at the Student Health Center currently provides STI testing, treatment, and education, pregnancy testing and counseling, contraception counseling and implementations (including IUD and Nexplanon insertion), among other reproductive health services. However, the health center is switching providers this month to a Catholic hospital, Our Lady of the Lake. According to Ariana Ball, the Healthcare Chair of LSU Feminists in Action, many students are concerned about the switch and its implications on handling contraceptive care. “The future of the health center is unknown. Now that Our Lady of the Lake is taking over, there is a lot more apprehension in regards to receiving reproductive healthcare,” Ball said. “It’s a concerning switch, but factoring in the overturning of Roe v. Wade makes the situation abysmal.”
Louisiana holds some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, where abortions are only legal in cases where the fetus or mother would not survive childbirth. In 2018, the United States Health Foundation reported that Louisiana ranks 48th in the health of women and children among states, and has the highest maternal mortality rate (58.1 deaths per 100,000 births). The combination of poor maternal health, reduced healthcare access, and an overall lack of information on campus creates a confluence of dangerous risks in student reproductive health.
Student advocates step in to improve access and education
Despite increased anxiety around healthcare access, students are channeling this fear into advocacy to help educate their peers and promote healthcare accessibility on campus. At LSU, the student group “Feminists in Action” have collaborated with local advocacy and healthcare organizations. In September, the club’s former Planned Parenthood Chair, Layla Harmon, hosted a “post-Roe workshop” alongside Planned Parenthood, ACLU, National Organization for Women (NOW) Baton Rouge, and Louisiana Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. To combat the lack of sex-ed in Louisiana schools, Feminists in Action hosts multiple meetings per semester where they discuss pertinent sexual health topics, such as different types of menstrual products, consent, and contraceptives. The club welcomes professionals from local organizations to present educational materials on these topics and facilitate discussions with LSU students.
UTK also has a student group, Sexual Awareness and Empowerment in Tennessee (SEAT), that aims to increase comprehensive sexual health knowledge in the UTK community. SEAT organizes “Sex Week,” a series of educational programs intended to draw attention to health and sexuality issues. The Sex Week programming has been met with resistance from certain lawmakers, but the events have continued nonetheless. “Students are not mandated to receive sexual health or educational services upon entering the University, so these resources must be sought out by those who are comfortable and interested in them,” Ely noted.
At TAMUCC in Corpus Christi, Texas, the intersectional student-led advocacy club “Islander Feminists” is also fighting against the lack of sexual education and reproductive care in the state. “There’s little to no actual sexual education in most Texas public schools and many young adults don’t know how to take care of themselves, properly have safe sex, or how important sexual health is,” Alyssa Alaniz, the Vice President of Islander Feminists, said.
Following the 2021 Texas Heartbeat Act (SB8), which imposed an abortion ban just six weeks after contraception, abortion activists in Texas became increasingly prepared to combat extremism. Islander Feminists has continued to host “Condom Crawls” and tabling events where they distribute “dozens upon dozens of free condoms and lube” and “safe sex goody bags” to students. The club also has a Plan B and sexual health supply delivery service to provide free resources to students and community members in need – with no-questions asked. Additionally, the club puts on Sexual Health 101 meetings, where clinicians from TAMUCC’s Women’s and Men’s Health Services break common sex-ed myths. Prior to and following Roe’s overturning, they’ve worked with local organizations doing the groundwork to support reproductive health in Texas.
Student advocacy initiatives help break the stigma and shame around reproductive health by promoting open conversations between students. “People sometimes find it hard or embarrassing to pick up free condoms from our table or come by to ask us questions, but we never shy away from trying to help them or send them in the right direction,” Alaniz said. “A few weeks ago I even had a young man shyly walk up to our table and ask to speak to one of us about a ‘private issue’ but he didn’t want to talk about it there at the table. We walked around the hall to a more secluded area and then he felt comfortable to ask me about how Plan B affects a body and what ‘sort’ of condoms he should be using to make sure his girlfriend is comfortable.”
Islander Feminists Co-President Molly Davis added that they are working towards getting TAMUCC’s Student Health Center to provide free Plan B to students and to warn students of the dangers of Crisis Pregnancy Centers (referred to by Davis as “CPCs”), as there is one located right on the border of TAMUCC’s campus. (As defined by Planned Parenthood, Crisis Pregnancy Centers are “fake clinics” or mobile vans run by anti-abortion individuals. They appear to look like real health centers, but are not legitimate clinics and do not have to follow HIPAA, do not provide abortion care or offer a full range of health care, and may distort information to discourage abortions through instilling shame, fear, or pressure in an individual seeking information or abortion care).
These advocates are even more determined in the wake of renewed religious extremism supporting the Dobbs decision. A new club, “Pro-Life Islanders,” was formed following the Dobbs decision, and there has been an increase in “local megachurches trying to evangelize students on campus” by passing out flyers and holding prayer fests, according to Islander Feminist member Cheyenne Sanchez. “Since the overturning [of Roe v. Wade], it appears that religious fanatics and pro-birth organizations have seized the opportunity to push their beliefs on campus,” Sanchez said.
This inflammatory information has abortion seekers increasingly confused as to where to seek care, and these counter-initiatives directly impede the promotion of sex education on campus. However, Islander Feminists have persisted in their efforts. Davis compiled a large document of resources and reminders titled “Roe was Overturned- What Now?” after the news of Dobbs hit.
“For a state so adamant on banning abortion, there is a grotesque lack of sex education available. We need a realistic, open, inclusive, science-based approach to sex-ed that not only focuses on safe sex, but satisfying and consensual sex,” Davis said. “I wanted everyone to know that abortion wasn’t going anywhere, that it would always be available to them, and that we can work together to fight back. Since the ruling, we have continued to be a source of help and clarity in our community as best we can.”
Student advocacy groups like Islander Feminists, Feminists in Action, and SEAT contribute to a healing and supportive community in the midst of the fear and uncertainty surrounding reproductive health. Alainz, the Vice President of Islander Feminists, was born and raised in Robstown, Texas, a small, conservative, majority-Latino town southwest of Corpus Christi. They always felt like an outcast as their peers believed they “looked too much into” issues seen as “taboo” in their community.
After arriving at TAMUCC during the ongoing Trump era, they felt scared and lost, as if the rights over their own body were being slowly stripped away. “Once I found The Islander Feminists, my worldview changed. I had a newfound sense of hope in the future of our state. I had finally found others who were also passionate about trying to maintain human rights during this time,” said Alverez. “It felt like I had just found the light in the dark tunnel that I had viewed the current climate in Texas as. It’s just what I had been looking for, a whole group of extremely passionate people who all care about keeping our human rights intact and are more than willing to get out there and do something about it.”
Despite the overturning of Roe v. Wade, this beacon of hope and connection has persevered through student groups and on-the-ground abortion activists. “Community support has been priceless in times like this and helps us immensely,” said Davis, the Co-President of Islander Feminists. “Every event at least a few people will come by our tables and just talk about how relieved it makes them to know that there are still people fighting and providing these resources regardless of the bans or attacks that we face on our basic rights”