SACRAMENTO, California — California’s Catholic governor is poised to veto or approve legislation that would make California the first U.S. state to require student health centers at public universities to dispense abortion pills.
S.B. 320, the “College Student Right to Access Act,” requires the 34 University of California and California State University campuses to provide mifepristone and misoprostol, a combination of drugs used to kill a developing unborn child, to students within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
The proposed law presents new challenges for Catholics and pro-life advocates trying to build a life-affirming and pro-parenting culture on campus.
“This is a real blow for women, honestly,” Kathleen Buckley-Domingo, the director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told the Register. Domingo said the legislation tells women they have to make a false choice between their degrees and their unborn children. It also undermines efforts to enforce existing statutes against pregnancy discrimination, and to modernize public education to better serve parenting students.
S.B. 320 is an unfunded mandate that requires private funding sources, not taxpayer funding, in order to train medical staff and equip student health centers on public campuses with abortion pills by Jan. 2, 2022. The state treasurer would collect the private donations to fund the collegiate abortion mandate.
However, university administrators have not embraced the measure due to concerns they will still be financially responsible for funding in the long term.
The final bill passed the California Senate Aug. 30 by a 26-13 vote, after passing the California Assembly in a 52-25 vote the day before. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, a Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian who previously has signed anti-life legislation into California law, such as physician-assisted suicide.
State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-San Bernardino, the primary sponsor of S.B. 320, said in an Aug. 30 statement that access to the abortion pill would serve “the well-being and academic success of college students.” She argued the lack of access to the abortion pill would disproportionately impact students of color and low-income students.
“By providing medication abortion services on campus by trained health care providers, students will not be forced to delay medical care, travel long distances or even miss class or work responsibilities,” Leyva said.
However, Catholic opponents of S.B. 320 have argued the legislation is the wrong answer to real challenges faced by students who lack support for their choice to both parent a child and attend university, even though Title IX regulations require universities to make certain accommodations.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles pointed to data showing more than a quarter of students at a public university are parenting. Data from community colleges indicated 53% of black women, 40% of both Latino and American Indian women, and 42% of multiracial women have children. Overall, 33% of low-income college students have children.
Undermining Title IX
Domingo said S.B. 320 undermines the effort to implement Title IX statutes against sex discrimination in California’s public universities. She explained many students who become pregnant do not know they have Title IX rights to flexible study and exam schedules, ability to make up classwork, excused absences related to pregnancy or childbirth, access to lactation rooms, and supportive programs for campus housing, health care and child care.
California public universities have not fully embraced the changes that would make them places that are friendly to students who choose to parent, such as providing day care to meet the existing demand. The archdiocese produced a fact sheet that states two out of three California public universities do not list pregnancy as protected under Title IX, and one out of three listed 0-1 lactation rooms on campus for their student populations.
But the veil of ignorance about Title IX means students, particularly if they are low-income, are vulnerable to being told that unless they take the abortion pill when they become pregnant they will not have the support to continue their education or keep their scholarships.
“That’s tantamount to coercion,” Domingo said.
Access to abortion is not difficult in California. Domingo pointed out that California has more than 500 providers, and abortion is covered by student health insurance plans and MediCal. But the needs that parenting students have been asking for, such as prenatal care, preventative medical services and child care support, have not been met.
Student Centers Not Prepared
Dr. Donna Harrison, the executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Register that student health centers are not prepared to handle emergency events related to the RU-486 abortion regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol.
“It’s a pretty dangerous pill for women,” she said.
Harrison said S.B. 320 aims to “normalize” RU-486 abortion on campus by claiming it is as simple as “pop a pill” — but medical oversight is necessary, because the risks of massive bleeding are greater than first trimester surgical abortion.
The other concern, Harrison said, is the “huge potential for abuse.” If a student is not supervised, she can give it to someone else to induce an involuntary miscarriage.
Harrison said that pro-life groups should respond by making information about abortion-pill reversal — through natural progesterone treatments — more widely available. She added that women should know the treatment is an option.
“It is an issue of informed consent,” she said. Harrison said AbortionPillReversal.com, managed by Heartbeat International, has 900 physicians in its network that offer the treatment.
Creative Responses Required
“We’re saddened that it has gotten this far,” Anna Bakh, Students for Life of America’s Northern California regional coordinator, told the Register. Bakh said the law will prompt more pro-life witness to take place on campus as opposed to off campus in front of an abortion center. But there are different challenges for pro-life collegiate witness with a student health center as opposed to an off-campus abortion center: Under S.B.320, students at California public universities could be walking into the student health center to get anything health related, from cough medicine to an abortion pill. Bakh said that while pro-life students may end up praying in front of the student health centers, they could decide a more effective witness is to just bring “life-affirming resources and information into the health centers.”
“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around this and strategize how to address this,” Bakh said.
Bakh said the local staff and volunteers will encourage their chapters to provide pregnancy and parenting resources that are part of the Students for Life “Pregnant on Campus Initiative.”
Kathleen Domingo said Catholic entities on campus need to “step up our game.” She said the Newman Centers and other entities have opportunities to conduct information campaigns to help women know, before they become pregnant, they have supportive options and rights under the law, such as housing, health care and insurance.
Domingo said women, particularly from immigrant families, need to know they do not have to choose between education and family, including their unborn child’s life.
“She can do both. She needs to know both are possible.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.