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Legislation passes to put abortion pills in Calif. public universities

At a time when conservative states are sharply limiting abortion access, California signaled a new frontier in abortion-rights Friday with the passage of legislation that would require all public universities in the state to provide medication abortion on campus.

The bill, which would use money raised from private donors to equip and train campus health centers, grew out of a student-led movement at the University of California Berkeley, and it has sparked the introduction of a similar bill in Massachusetts.

Anti-abortion groups say they are likely to challenge the legislation if Governor Gavin Newsom signs it into law. He has a month to decide. A spokesman declined to say what he will do, but last year during his campaign for governor, Newsom said he supported a similar effort.

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The bill would apply to 34 campuses throughout the state, with nearly 750,000 enrolled students — 11 under the umbrella of the University of California and 23 under the California State University System. A 2018 study estimated that hundreds of students at these schools seek medication abortion each month.

“We can show the rest of the country, especially while there’s these crazy abortion bans sweeping the country,” said Zoe Murray, 23, a recent graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara, who sought a medication abortion from the student health center there when she was a sophomore but had to go off campus. “Going to university is really stressful as is, and a lot of students are struggling financially, or like me, I was struggling with my mental health at the time.”

Under the bill, as of 2023, campus health centers would be required to offer medication abortion — a process that involves taking two types of pills, legally approved to terminate pregnancies that are within 10 weeks of gestation.

Private donations of about $10.3 million, which organizers say has already been raised, would be used to train staff at university health centers and to buy ultrasound machines. State law already requires that insurers cover the cost of abortion.

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The two California higher education systems did not take a position on the bill. They raised concerns about whether they would have to bear costs for logistics, liability, or security, which they might then pass on to students, and said they were working with legislators to address those.

The abortion pill method, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000, now accounts for about a third of US abortions, and studies have shown it to be safe and effective in most cases.

The FDA requires that the first of the two drugs, mifepristone, be dispensed by a certified medical provider after a consultation, but women can then take one or both of the drugs at home.

Most campus health centers now provide gynecological exams and contraception, but refer students seeking abortions to outside clinics. Advocates for the bill argued that sending students off campus for a process that typically involves medical visits before and after the medication was taken posed hurdles.

“The barriers are about economics and schedules and frankly also about stigma,” said Marj Plumb, campaign director of JustCARE: Campus Action for Reproductive Equity. “It’s the idea that this procedure, which really is simple and really is safe, that there is something wrong that they had to go somewhere else to get this medicine.”

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Opponents of the bill include the California Catholic Conference, whose president, Bishop Jaime Soto, last month urged Christians to “pray with me a novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of unborn children, asking her powerful intercession to defeat this bill.”

Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for Students for Life of America, said her organization called medication abortions “toilet bowl abortions,” adding that “at the rallies, we often bring toilet seats as a visual.” Her group contends that medication abortions are damaging to women’s health.

“We also are very concerned about the conscience rights of people — students whose fees will be used to underwrite these health centers,” she said.

A similar bill has been introduced in Massachusetts by state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a Democrat. “It feels like a very winnable fight,” she said.

The student health program at the University of Illinois Chicago, which has about 33,300 students, currently provides medication abortion.