Carnegie Mellon University was ready to offer students medication abortions. University Health Services [UHS] already offered birth control and emergency contraception pills, patches and rings, IUDs and implants. Why not abortion pills, too?
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In June, UHS Executive Director Christine Andrews proposed to include the service.
The summer surge in out-of-state patients at Pittsburgh’s abortion clinics meant longer wait times for appointments. “I want our students to have the level of access that they had prior to this,” Andrews explained in an interview with PublicSource.
Andrews had almost everything she needed to provide abortion pills through UHS. Then she ran into state regulations. “The health center would have to be declared an abortion provider site, which has a lot of red tape that goes with it,” she said.
Looking for guidance, Andrews reached out to an abortion law expert. “She chuckled out loud. As soon as she heard it was Pennsylvania, she was like, ‘You’re done,’” Andrews recalled.
State laws make it too prohibitive for university health centers to provide abortions, according to UHS Medical Director Lisa Schlar. But local colleges and universities help students access reproductive health care in other ways.
Health centers at Carnegie Mellon, Chatham University, Point Park University and the University of Pittsburgh refer students seeking abortions to the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center and Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. Both offer a wide range of reproductive health services, including abortion.
Universities contract with insurers to provide health plans to students who don’t have other coverage. Carnegie Mellon, Chatham, Pitt and Point Park offer student plans or riders that cover all abortions. Duquesne and LaRoche universities, both Catholic institutions, do not.
Nationally, abortion access is expanding on some college campuses. By January 2023, medical centers at all public universities in California will provide abortion pills. By November 2023, those in Massachusetts will submit plans to do the same. Barnard College will offer abortion pills next year.
At Pitt, the student club Planned Parenthood Generation Action [PPGen] wants their school to make a similar commitment. Club president Alexa Pierce, a junior, acknowledged that as a public university, “Pitt can’t officially say how they feel about Roe falling,” considering they have to court state funds from politicians on both sides of the aisle.
If a Pitt student is pregnant and has questions, Student Health Services refers them to All-Options and the National Abortion Federation. Both organizations offer resources for all pregnancy choices: parenting, adoption and abortion.
Among other things, universities are weighing the role of crisis pregnancy centers. For example, Student Health Services at Pitt does not refer students to crisis pregnancy centers — antiabortion centers that encourage pregnancy with free testing, counseling and resources.
Why not crisis pregnancy centers?
Women’s Choice Network is nestled into Fifth Avenue, a 10-minute walk from the heart of Pitt’s and Carnegie Mellon’s campuses. Birthright of Pittsburgh is four minutes away on South Craig. Both are crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs.
Andrews said Google is the first place most people consult when they find out they are pregnant, “which is why Google needs to be safe.” She said “fake clinics” are central to discussions about reproductive health access on college campuses.
Before assuming her role as medical director at Carnegie Mellon in September, Schlar was a physician at Shadyside Family Health Center, where she saw college students. Schlar said she had patients who “were misled and had misinformation” from visits to CPCs.
In July, Pittsburgh City Council voted unanimously to ban deceptive CPC advertising.
Women’s Choice Network declined an interview request but sent a statement to PublicSource. “No woman should ever be made to feel that she has ‘no choice’ but abortion,” wrote Executive Director Amy Scheuring. “We have been providing vital life affirming solutions for students facing unexpected pregnancies since the 1980s. Thousands trust us each year for medical services like STD testing and treatment, pregnancy testing and ultrasound, ongoing material support, mentorship, and post abortive care.”
Women’s Choice Network does not provide abortions or abortion referrals.
Each fall, Student Health Services hosts a fair with local wellness resources for Pitt students. Women’s Choice Network is regularly invited to table at the Healthy U fair. Pierce said the PPGen club makes an annual request to Student Health Services to withhold this invitation.
When PPGen made its request to Student Health Services this September, they were told Women’s Choice Network had not been invited to Healthy U. “We asked why, but they wouldn’t tell us,” said PPGen Menstrual Equity Coordinator Mia Naccarato. “They’re supporting us but just not saying it.”
According to a university spokesperson, new organizations were invited to the Healthy U fair this year. This meant some organizations that traditionally attended, including Women’s Choice Network, were not invited this fall. “We have limited space to host this event and we attempt to fill that space with a broad scope of health and wellness resources,” the spokesperson wrote.
Mary Joyce, club president of Choose Life at Pitt, told PublicSource that Women’s Choice Network and Birthright of Pittsburgh offer critical resources for pregnant women and mothers.
“We recognize that one of [the club’s] most important roles on campus is to connect struggling mothers with professionals who can give them high quality health care, emotional and financial support,” Joyce said. “We want to step up to fill a void we see where Title IX is only loosely applied for pregnant and parenting students. The university has taken good steps towards creating resources, but even what little they have can go unknown and underutilized.”
She said Women’s Choice Network and Birthright of Pittsburgh fill this gap.
Duquesne University campus minister Linda Donovan said she would refer students experiencing unplanned pregnancies to Women’s Choice Network. She helps coordinate Consistent Ethic of Life [CEL], the pro-life club on campus.
“You have to give them the information that they need to make a good decision. And it can’t be in an emotional state,” Donovan said. “A lot of times, they’re beside themselves when they find themselves in that situation. So they need a little bit of counseling and help to decide what’s right for them.”
Duquesne’s Health Services does not work with CPCs, according to vice president for marketing and communications Gabriel Welsch. “When students come to Health Services, our medical professionals connect them with local OBGYNs in order to ensure they are getting the medical care they need,” he wrote in a statement to PublicSource.
Beyond the procedure and the pills
While no local colleges or universities say they’re considering certification as an abortion provider, there is renewed focus on reproductive autonomy at many higher education institutions. Students, health services and academic departments have sought ways to protect access.
PPGen saw an influx of new members and interest. “The chat blew up when Roe fell,” Pierce said. “A lot of students were asking, ‘Where can I donate? What can I do?’” PPGen coordinated volunteer efforts between students and the city’s two abortion clinics.
Carnegie Mellon’s FEMME club participated in demonstrations on campus and Downtown to defend reproductive rights. Triangle, the STEM fraternity at the University of Pittsburgh, held a fundraiser for abortion.
Chatham University’s Women’s Institute hosted a community screening of The Janes, followed by a discussion with abortion experts and advocates. Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Modern Languages launched an international film series on reproductive rights. The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Civil and Racial Justice hosted a panel on Dobbs’ impact on communities of color.
Last month, University Health Services at CMU launched its condom vending machine pilot program in Greek housing. Pending pilot results (it has so far been “a hit,” according to Andrews), Plan B vending machines are next on the list.
Schlar also pointed out that she got support from CMU to set up a voter registration booth at University Health Services. “Just having the forms available there with a big sign that while you’re waiting, you can register to vote, I think speaks volumes to our commitment to civic action,” she told PublicSource. “Civic action and health are tied together.”
Correction (8/16/2023): This story has been corrected to accurately reflect Pitt’s health plan offerings and amended to clarify the insurance coverage arrangements in student health plans.
Sophia Levin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.
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