The very public “thank you” from Governor Maura Healey took many by surprise: She praised UMass Amherst on Monday for mobilizing to procure the state’s newly acquired stockpile of a contested abortion medication.
With reproductive rights once again under attack, this time from a Texas judge, the state’s flagship public university had moved — quickly and quietly — last week to answer the governor’s call to buy the 15,000-dose supply of mifepristone, which could last over a year.
“This is something that was student motivated,” UMass President Marty Meehan said in an interview Tuesday, providing the backstory of the college’s unlikely role in the national controversy.
Meehan said the action had its roots in student advocacy in recent years, amid fears (later realized) that the US Supreme Court would strike down Roe v. Wade. If that happened, students worried, abortions would become even harder to access, especially for students hailing from conservative states, and further stigmatized.
Last summer, campus officials sought FDA approval to prescribe mifepristone, making the university the only public entity in Massachusetts with the ability to purchase the medication, Meehan said. The decision followed students advocating for more convenient access to medication abortions.
“Student activism has always been a rich part of the culture at UMass. I am super proud of [the university’s] role in this,” said Audrey Gabriel, secretary of health and wellbeing for UMass Amherst’s student government association. “College students are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to reproductive health care.”
Students seeking reproductive care previously had to travel to Springfield to visit the closest Planned Parenthood clinic, which was challenging for students without cars, Meehan said.
A new law signed last year by former governor Charlie Baker, which followed a similar law in California, requires the state’s public colleges and universities to provide access to medication abortion through their health services or local resources.
UMass Amherst was out in front of the legislation after students made their voices heard, said Julia Mathis, a 2020 graduate of UMass Amherst who now works as a legislative aide for state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, who helped draft the new law.
To understand the need for increased access to reproductive health care for college students, Mathis helped conduct “mystery calls” to abortion clinics posing as a pregnant student seeking information about availability and costs. The research found that abortions could cost as much as $700 or $800, and some clinics didn’t offer weekend appointments, were hours away from campuses, or had wait times of six weeks.
Mathis said Tuesday that students and advocates felt joy, excitement, and “honestly surprise” when UMass agreed last year to start offering medication abortions on campus. She said she is proud to see her alma mater ”taking such a loud stand.”
“I don’t see a lot of universities making the same kind of loud push for access,” she said. “I think it’s rare and important they are doing that.”
The student advocacy prompted university leaders to seek certification in the Mifepristone Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies Program through the FDA last summer in order to prescribe and purchase the drugs. The campus policy went into effect last fall.
UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in an interview Tuesday that he is proud students pushed administrators to get the necessary certifications to offer mifepristone, which came in handy when the governor called for the university’s help.
“We really take pride in how active our students are in national affairs and not being afraid to push their ideas to the administration,” Subbaswamy said.
State officials will be responsible for distributing the 15,000 doses, which Healey said would last over a year, to community health centers and hospitals. The state will also reimburse UMass Amherst for its purchases.
Meehan said that as a land-grant university, UMass has a service-oriented mission and has been asked previously to “mobilize resources to address critical needs in the state,” including during the COVID-19 pandemic when UMass set up field hospitals and vaccine clinics.
“People have been positive [about] our ability to work with the new administration and to help provide something that all women in Massachusetts would potentially have access to,” Meehan said. “Last week Governor Healey called upon UMass Amherst to mobilize, this time to help protect safe and legal medical abortion for women in Massachusetts.”