Beginning in Fall 2022, UMass Amherst will make abortion pills available to its nearly 30,000 students through the university’s on-campus health services. It is the first public Massachusetts university to take this step.
UMass’s decision comes in the midst of a heated national discussion on the legality of abortion. The Supreme Court recently heard and will soon decide on a Mississippi case that seeks to maintain strict limitations on abortions, jeopardizing the decision of the landmark case Roe v. Wade (1973). In Texas, abortions are currently punishable as a criminal offense after the sixth week of pregancy.
The F.D.A. ruled in December that it will permanently allow patients to receive abortion pills — which can terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks in length — by mail instead of having to obtain them in person. While many conservative states have already taken steps to curtail access to the pills, other states are expected to increase the availability of the method.
In announcing its decision, UMass officials cited a prior lack of accessibility to abortion services, as well as interest from students in the services, as their motivation for the policy. The closest Planned Parenthood to the university is located in Springfield — a 30-minute trip by car, but over two hours away via public transportation.
By offering abortion medication on campus, UMass hopes to remove this barrier of travel time. Medication abortions are also significantly less invasive than surgical abortions, meaning students would not have to take as much time off in order to recover.
UMass graduate student Brendan Retalic expressed support for the decision. “If it is healthcare, it should be accessible. [M]aking it easier for students to be able to access healthcare services is always a good thing, in my opinion,” he said.
Some vocal students and organizations on campus, however, have spoken out against the decision. Kate Scott, founder of UMass’ Students For Life group, thinks UMass is out of place in offering the medication.
“It’s out of the scope of what a public university should be doing, especially with taxpayer funding,” Scott said. She also worries that campus health services are unequipped to address possible complications from medication abortions, endangering students’ safety.
Other universities may soon follow suit in providing abortion medication to students. State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, a Democrat from Northampton, is leading the push for a bill that would require all public universities in the state to offer the medication.
Sabadosa believes that cases like the ones in Mississippi and Texas heighten the urgency for greater abortion accessibility. “It’s the time for the states that are really saying abortion is healthcare to prove it,” she said.
As a private institution, Amherst College would not be subject to Representative Sabadosa’s bill even if it were to pass. However, discussions of expanding abortion services and other reproductive healthcare are still taking place on campus.
“I think [the Health Center] should definitely [offer abortion services],” said Hibiscus Zhang ’25, who works as a program organizer for the Women’s and Gender Center (WGC). “A lot of students don’t have access to a car or access to the time to go out of their way [to seek out abortion services],” a burden that disproportionately falls on low-income and other marginalized students, he said.
“I know if I was ever in a situation like that, I would’ve just not been able to go. Like whatsoever,” Zhang added. “The amount of time to get there, to pay for everything, that's just too much.”
Nurse Practitioner Alyssa Pawlowski said that while the conversation surrounding offering medication abortions is ongoing at Amherst, it’s not likely to happen immediately.
This is partly because the services provided by Amherst’s Health Center are simply incomparable to the “extensive gynecological and reproductive care” that UMass boasts. “UMass has had … a robust women’s clinic for quite a long time,” said Pawlowski. She added that one of their strengths is their ability to conduct ultrasounds, which play a “vital role” in reproductive care.
According to Pawlowski, it’s still unclear whether Amherst students may be able to access UMass-distributed abortion medication. “The decision is new enough that we haven’t discussed whether or not there’s access to that yet,” she said. A partnership would not be unthinkable, however, since the healthcare systems at Amherst and UMass are already very connected — the college uses the UMass pharmacy and labs for a variety of purposes, and has access to the university’s after-hours health services.
Currently, the college offers referrals for reproductive health services that aren’t offered on campus, using a range of different clinics and providers to meet the availability and needs of the individual student. The college also works to address many of the difficulties that come with accessing services off campus. In the past, this has included private transportation services to and from clinics; housing accommodations like respite rooms and other spaces to recover; and access to follow-up care.
Pawlowski emphasized that these options are not the only ones that exist. Regardless of a patient’s situation, the Health Center will “help students access the care they need in a safe and confidential way,” she said.
However, both Pawlowski and Staff Counselor Laura Fusari, who has also been involved in conversations on improving reproductive healthcare at the college and emphasized counseling services as a crucial element of that care, acknowledged that information about available resources should be more clearly communicated to students. “When you’re in a time of need, you don’t [have time] to sift through all the information or answers or resources,” said Fusari. “We’re making efforts to reduce stigma, and we do that by making things more detailed and explicit.”
Fusari thinks it’s important to remember the historical traumas that exist around issues of reproductive health that might prevent students from seeking help — from different prior experiences with healthcare to “myths like ‘if you get pregnant, the college will get rid of you.’”
“We want to make it clear that any student can come and seek resources and they will not be turned away,” she added.
Fusari emphasized that the programs at Amherst are constantly looking to grow. “States like Massachusetts have some responsibility to look at the national problem,” she said. “In places where there is access, we have to be thoughtful about how we maintain that access.”
“At our core, we are always operating from the idea that everyone has a right to comprehensive medical care,” said Pawlowski.