The resurgence and emergence of criminal abortion statutes after Roe falls, as well as the
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The resurgence and emergence of criminal abortion statutes after Roe falls, as well as the citizen-enforced abortion bans already in effect, will fundamentally change our colleges, particularly in those 20 states that are poised to end or severely restrict abortion access. Women account for close to 60 percent of all college students in the United States. What will our colleges look like when large numbers of our students live with the possibility that local governments will force them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, against their will?
In this context, the work of the university’s dedicated professionals will become harder and more complex. Consider the dean of admissions. The battle for students and their tuition revenue is already fierce for many institutions. Demographic trends and the pandemic’s continuing impact on the economy will only exacerbate the problem. The end of Roe introduces a new disadvantage for colleges in states where students will confront limited legal options in the face of an unintended pregnancy. Enrollment at these institutions may well suffer: Prospective students will pause before deciding to live in a state where the legislature radiates an almost obsessive hostility toward women’s reproductive-health-care choices.
What will our colleges look like when large numbers of our students live with the possibility that local governments will force them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, against their will?
Faculty and staff members who work directly with students will face thorny new challenges, too. What happens when a student confides in a professor or an adviser or coach that she is distracted with worry over a skipped period, that she must miss class to travel out of state for reproductive health care, or that she is thinking about withdrawing because she has no option but to carry a pregnancy to term? Must these faculty and staff turn a blind eye to the student’s distress? In my experience, it is simply not in their DNA to do so. But in states like Texas and Oklahoma, college staff members who help distraught students work around state criminal and civil laws to obtain abortions may themselves be targeted as “aiders and abetters” in costly lawsuits that almost any colleague or student could bring.
Even more concerning is the potential impact on our students’ relationships with one another. Consider what may happen If a private antiabortion apparatus is grafted onto the close-quartered residential campus. Will some resident advisers, hall mates, and roommates seek to earn $10,000 bounties by bringing civil suits based upon classmates’ private and often excruciating decisions? The very fabric of the university — the relationships within it — will begin to morph and fray. Trust will devolve into suspicion, feeding the anxiety and isolation already at the heart of our campuses’ mental-health crisis. Colleges’ struggle to dismantle hierarchies based on race and gender will be set back decades, as female students, particularly women of color, are forced to navigate decisions that other peers simply will never face.
We celebrate our colleges because they offer students a type of bubble around the years that bridge childhood and adulthood. Colleges create the time, space, and community that enable students to grapple with the life questions that ultimately define their identities and shape their future paths. The new abortion bans will limit those whom students are willing to trust. They will stunt free-flowing conversation. And they will shunt some students out of college entirely. These effects will diminish the essence of the university community and change who our students will become in the world.
Executives at Citigroup, Levi Strauss & Co., Amazon, and Lyft are already planning for the devastating impact that abortion bans may have on employees. Our college leaders will need to take parallel steps, thinking creatively and expeditiously about how to support students, staff, and faculty. College leaders hold the keys to a versatile toolbox. They could amend employee and student handbooks to insulate private campus conversations from use in citizen-enforced abortion bans. They could make pregnancy tests and contraception, including emergency contraception, readily available to students and staff at no charge. They could allocate resources to support students and employees in obtaining out-of-state abortion care. In the face of the laws that many state legislatures are now passing, putting in place these types of programs will require ingenuity, legal acumen, political courage, and unflappable leadership. The clock is ticking.