Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.
In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.
But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.
For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.
“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”
At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”
But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.
At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.
Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”
Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.
But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.
“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”
NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”
Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.
In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.
She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.
If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?
“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.
Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.
For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”