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D.C. college students face barriers to abortion and reproductive healthcare

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

College students are among those most impacted by increasingly restrictive abortion laws, and following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v Wade back in June, access to abortion and reproductive healthcare has been of growing concern for students in the nation’s capital.

D.C. has some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country, but for college students in the District, access to abortion and reproductive healthcare varies widely depending on the school they attend.

The Catholic University of America (Catholic) and Georgetown University both adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church, which is firm in its anti-abortion and anti-contraception positions. The Church holds that abortion is gravely wrong at every stage, and that contraception “intrinsically wrong,” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Campus policies at Catholic and Georgetown, as well as social attitudes towards abortion and contraceptives pose as significant barriers to students looking to access them.

Correy Crawford, a junior at Catholic and the public affairs officer for CUA Progressive Student Union, a student group on campus that advocates for progressive issues and policy, said that students in need of an abortion may have to travel far from campus to find a provider, for fear of running into a number of Catholic students who engage in anti-abortion protests at the clinics nearby.

“Having and getting access to [abortion services] is quite difficult,” said Crawford in a phone interview, “and there’s the social aspect that some of the students who are Catholic do go to places like Planned Parenthood in D.C. to protest.”

Many students hold strong anti-abortion sentiments on campus, and the University itself sponsors anti-abortion demonstrations and takes students to the March for Life, an anti-abortion protest in D.C. every year. According to the Catholic University official website for Campus Ministry, the University’s student service program, “Every Saturday, members of Cardinals for Life go to the local abortion clinic to be a peaceful and prayerful presence at the clinic.”

Gaining access to contraceptive methods is also difficult for students at Catholic institutions. According to Crawford, students at Catholic face a $25 fine for every condom found in their possession on campus, although this policy could not be confirmed on the University website. The Catholic University Dean of Students office did not respond to requests for comment.

The student health center at Catholic does not provide students with any forms of contraception, offer any information on abortion or issue referrals for students to abortion providers.

Though an updated student insurance policy was not available on CUA’s website, in a statement to Catholic News Agency last year, the university said that it had removed coverage for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother from its policy, and that such coverage had been added in error by Aetna, the school’s insurance provider. The 2021-2022 plan including this coverage is still posted on the University’s human resources website.

At D.C.’s other major Catholic school, Georgetown University, birth control can be prescribed by the university health center only if there is an underlying medical need for it, such as acne or irregular periods, and students cannot fill these prescriptions on campus, according to the University’s student health center website.

Additionally, The Georgetown University School of Medicine does not offer abortion training to medical students, and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital does not offer the procedure to patients, per a 2019 story written in the Hoya, a Georgetown student newspaper.

Other forms of contraceptives, like condoms and Plan B, are only available through the student-run reproductive justice and sexual health organization, H*yas for Choice. Because the group is not recognized by the university, it is not permitted to use the name “Hoyas” which is a trademark of the school’s athletics.

Jess Shannon – a senior at Georgetown and the director of contraceptives and tabling for H*yas for Choice – said that the university community is largely in support of their organization. “I would say Georgetown students, Georgetown faculty, even maybe Georgetown administration are a largely pro-choice group of individuals,” said Shannon in an interview.

They noted, however, that the school’s Catholic affiliation causes tension with Hyas for Choice. “Georgetown holds the largest student-run pro-life conference in the country, which is interesting because the pro-life group on campus is much smaller than [Hyas for Choice], yet they still have all this money being thrown at them,” said Shannon. “So I think there is tension in the fact that they get all this money thrown at them and nobody really supports them.”

H*yas for Choice receives no funding from the university as an unrecognized group, and relies entirely on donations to fund the organization. The club has made several efforts to try and convince the university to change its stance on abortion and contraception.

“Right now, we have a no-donation pledge encouraging students and alumni not to make blanket donations to the university, but they are still welcome to donate to a specific scholarship or organization,” said Shannon. “To make the university feel the impact of their position on abortion a little bit more.”

For students at American University (AU) and George Washington University (GWU), access to abortion and reproductive healthcare is not restricted through religious affiliation or campus policy, but students say there are still challenges.

The student insurance policies at both AU and GW will cover 80% of the cost of an abortion with an in-network provider, and 60% of the cost with an out-of-network provider, according to the university websites. However, many students choose to waive coverage under the school policy and remain on their parents’ insurance. In many cases, this means that they cannot get an abortion covered or are worried about their parents seeing the procedure under their claims, according to students.

Maddie Niziolek – a graduate student at GW and a co-president of GW Reproductive Autonomy and Gender Equity (GW RAGE), a reproductive justice and sex positivity organization on campus, said in an interview that for students not using insurance to cover abortion care the procedure can be very expensive.

“I think cost is still always a barrier for students,” said Niziolek. “Students afraid of their parents finding out are encouraged to go to Planned Parenthood, where they have a sliding scale fee that a lot of students can qualify to get a reduced cost on birth control and abortion services, but transportation can also be issue for a lot of people,” she said.

At Planned Parenthood in D.C. a medication abortion costs $578 out of pocket, and an in-clinic abortion can cost anywhere from $578 to $2,008, depending on how far along the patient is in their pregnancy and if they will require sedation during the procedure.

The student health centers at AU and GW provide students with birth control prescriptions, pregnancy testing and referrals to abortion providers, and condoms are available to students on both campuses free of charge.

For many students, activism through involvement in clubs and organizations on campus has been an important way to show their support for the cause. Georgetown, GWU and Catholic all have some kind of pro-choice or reproductive justice student organization on their campuses, but AU currently does not.

Given AU’s reputation as a highly politically active and liberal institution, this came as a shock to Riley Howington – a sophomore at AU and a member of the Kennedy Political Union, AU’s student-run political programming organization. “I think that it’s important that we have at least some form of representation for women and other gender minorities on campus actively advocating for their rights,” said Howington in an interview.

Despite the varying policies across the universities, students at all four schools said that interest in reproductive healthcare and pro-choice organizations on campus had grown significantly since Roe’s reversal in June. According to The Eagle, AU’s student newspaper, petitions for the University to install vending machines offering birth control and emergency contraception were spread among students earlier in the year.

Shannon said that H*yas for Choice has seen an unprecedented number of new sign-ups and students showing up at their recent events. “With the events we do, usually the first couple of events would be super popular, but the number of people would start to taper off after a while,” they said, “but every single time at these events we’ve had like 50 to 100 people, which is a crazy number for us!”

Niziolek similarly said that GW RAGE saw many new sign-ups and took groups of students to the Supreme Court to protest after the decision was released.

“We have had just like a massive influx of like people who want to be involved [with GW RAGE],” said Niziolek. “We got over 200 new signups for people who are interested in joining our organization, so that’s been really cool to see people so involved and other young people are so supportive and in tune with what’s happening in the world around them.”

Lily Sweeting

American '23

Lily Sweeting is a senior at American University majoring in journalism with a minor in Spanish language. She is originally from Nassau, Bahamas, and is passionate about investigative journalism and writing about reproductive justice, LGBTQ+ issues and other social justice causes.