Barnard, the private women’s college in New York City, will begin offering abortion pills on campus next year, college officials announced Thursday.
The decision, to take effect in September, signals how the nation’s colleges and universities are becoming another front in the nation’s pitched battle over abortion after the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“I think we’re putting a stake in the ground that we believe that health and wellness is really the institution’s responsibility for students, and we want to do everything we can to support our students,” Sian L. Beilock, the president of Barnard, which operates in partnership with Columbia University, said in an interview.
In an email sent out to the campus Thursday, Barnard officials wrote, “The overturning of Roe v. Wade after 50 years will likely decrease college accessibility, result in lower graduation rates, and derail employment trajectories.” The email said that while abortion access in New York was currently strong, “we are also preparing in the event that there is a barrier to access in the future, for any reason.”
This summer, Massachusetts enacted a law requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to submit plans by November 2023 to provide abortion pills to students, either through their campus health centers or through a local service that is readily accessible to students. By January, California’s public colleges and universities will be required by a state law enacted in 2019 to offer the pills.
At the same time, colleges in states with abortion bans or strict restrictions are imposing measures to rein in campus reproductive health services.
Last month, the general counsel of the University of Idaho sent a memo to all employees saying that under Idaho’s near-total ban on abortion, which took effect in August, employees of the state university cannot counsel patients about abortion or refer them to abortion services. If employees do so, the memo said, they could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony under the new law, lose their job and be permanently barred from state employment.
The memo also said that the Idaho law prohibited employees from dispensing emergency contraception, except in cases of rape, and added that, because it was unclear how broadly the law applied to other methods of contraception, “we are advising a conservative approach here, that the university not provide standard birth control itself.”
Condoms can be provided only if they are intended to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the memo said, “not for purposes of birth control.”
In general, colleges and universities have cautiously approached the question of whether to offer medication abortion. Rachel Mack, a spokeswoman for the American College Health Association, which represents more than 700 institutions of higher education, said the issue was being discussed among colleges and the association’s reproductive rights task force.
“Not all schools have the resources to provide such a service and may refer out to community providers,” Ms. Mack said. “Campuses vary greatly in their available resources — this can be due to location, the needs of their student population and many other factors.”
A few colleges decided to offer abortion pills long before this year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe. The University of California, Berkeley, has been doing so for a couple of years.
A study published in 2018 estimated that 322 to 519 students at California’s public universities sought medication abortion each month and that many faced obstacles of cost, of travel distance to providers and of long waits for appointments.
In a survey by the American College Health Association in 2020, 2.5 percent of 122 college health centers said they provided medication abortion on campus, while 87 percent said they provided referrals to patients seeking abortion.
At Barnard, Dr. Marina Catallozzi, the vice president of health and wellness and chief health officer, said that adding medication abortion was already on the college’s radar before some students met with health services officials this year to ask the school to provide it.
“We feel like this is of course a natural step in caring for a population of college students who are at risk of pregnancy,” Dr. Catallozzi said, noting that Barnard already offered a range of reproductive health services, including a campus vending machine for emergency contraception for students who want to obtain the morning-after pill in a more private way than visiting the wellness center.
“With every reproductive health decision, but particularly around a pregnancy,” she said, “we want to make sure that students have all of the options — if they want to continue a pregnancy, if they want to continue and go on to adoption, if they want to terminate.”
Barnard officials said they decided not to offer the pills immediately in order to spend the next several months training staff, developing protocols and working out logistics. They said that the pills would be covered by the college’s health insurance plan and that there would be emergency funding available for students without insurance or those who do not want to use their parents’ insurance policies.
Medication abortion, legalized in the United States in 2000, typically involves two drugs: mifepristone, which blocks a hormone necessary for pregnancy development, followed 24 to 48 hours later by misoprostol, which causes contractions that expel pregnancy tissue. The Food and Drug Administration requires that mifepristone be dispensed by specially certified providers, but patients can take the pills on their own at home or any location they choose.
Patients with some medical issues, like bleeding disorders, are not prescribed abortion pills. But for the many patients who are medically eligible, data indicates medication abortion is safe and effective, with a small percentage of patients requiring a procedure to fully remove pregnancy tissue and an even smaller proportion experiencing serious complications.
Dr. Catallozzi and Dr. Beilock said very few students at Barnard had sought abortions in recent years. Those who do are typically referred to services affiliated with Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and that relationship will continue. Dr. Catallozzi said she expected that some students who live in dorms may prefer to go to the medical center for surgical abortions, which do not involve the days of bleeding that typically follow taking the pills.
Dr. Catallozzi also said that the college wanted to offer the option in case New York’s abortion services become overwhelmed with patients from states with restrictions. “It makes sense for us to say, ‘Hey, the landscape’s changing all over the country. Let’s make sure that if needed, we’re prepared,’” she said.
In the 2023 academic year, Dr. Beilock will become the president of Dartmouth College. Asked if she would recommend that Dartmouth offer abortion pills, Dr. Beilock said: “I’m looking forward to getting to know the Dartmouth community better. Right now, I’m president of Barnard and thinking, with our experts, about what’s best for Barnard.”