Abortion Laws: What College Students And Their Parents Need To Know

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Abortion Laws: What College Students And Their Parents Need To Know

As we cross the border into the conservative state in which my older daughter attends college, she often snaps a photo of the state line.

“I’ll just leave my reproductive rights here until I come home for break,” she’ll say, with a sigh.

A Snapchat post the author's daughter created when she crossed the state line from her home state, where abortion is legal, to the state where she attends college, where abortion is illegal.
A Snapchat post the author’s daughter created when she crossed the state line from her home state, where abortion is legal, to the state where she attends college, where abortion is illegal.

She was a sophomore when the Dobbs decision was leaked, and called me, devastated, from her dorm room. I warned her to quickly delete the smartphone app she used to track her menstrual cycle and reminded her that she does not need to answer any doctor’s questions about the date of her last period. I was immediately anxious about what the red state in which she was studying might begin to track.

The next fall, the school’s student government bought hundreds and hundreds of doses of Plan B and Ella “morning-after” pills, which can be used as emergency contraception, assuming you fall within the weight limit. There was little else they could do; the state had already begun the process of outlawing abortions.

By August of 2023, abortion in the state would be completely illegal, but even before then, it was effectively impossible anyway. Doctors didn’t want to take the risk. My daughter covered her computer and her bulletin board in pro-choice slogans, made phone calls for pro-choice candidates in the 2022 election, and kept picking her reproductive rights up at the border on her way home, posting a Snapchat of a cartoon uterus waving at her from the state line.

As college acceptance letters come in this winter, some young people will, as my daughter did, choose schools in anti-choice states. I’ve learned a lot since Dobbs about how to plan for my children’s health care from afar, a part of college planning that would never have occurred to me three years ago. Now I know that, in some states, some forms of health care would be better accessed after crossing a border. If we as parents fail to help our kids prepare, we do them a disservice, as those students coming from states where abortion is legal will be taken by surprise at the restrictions elsewhere.

What can you do to prepare your kids?

Find out ahead of time about what kinds of services are available in the school clinics and how those services are tracked. If you live in a state where abortion is legal, you might be surprised by the kinds of restrictions in force in other states. For example, in Alabama, pregnant people have been jailed in order to “protect the fetus” as part of the Chemical Endangerment of a Child Law, for reasons ranging from drug use to firing a weapon while pregnant.

In February, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos used in IVF qualify as “human children,” citing Christian theological texts to bolster the court’s decision; many are worried about the ways this opinion might impact access to further reproductive health care in the state. If your child becomes pregnant in Alabama or a state with similar laws, it will be important to seek health care in a pro-choice state.

In Ohio, even a miscarriage can be labeled a crime. In January, a jury finally declined to indict a woman whose miscarriage was originally charged as “felony abuse of a corpse.” This could mean that students in Ohio might want to have missed menstrual cycles or other reproductive health concerns evaluated in states without this kind of scrutiny and tracking of pregnant people.

Map out your travel plans now. It’s important to be conscious of how far students will have to travel if they need reproductive health care, including non-abortion care that might be affected, like D&C procedures for endometriosis or access to medications that can be abortifacients even if your student only uses them for other conditions (like methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis).

In Tennessee and Oklahoma, there are currently “abortion trafficking” laws being proposed in the state legislatures, which would bar anyone from bringing a minor across state lines for an abortion without parental permission. The same type of law was already passed in Idaho, where it’s being stayed by a federal judge pending a legal challenge. If these laws are allowed to go into effect, that would mean your over-18 student could be charged with a felony for helping their 17-year-old friend travel out of state for an abortion without permission from the friend’s parents, regardless of the friend’s home state.

"These are buttons from my time fundraising and advocating for reproductive rights in the 1990s," the author writes.
“These are buttons from my time fundraising and advocating for reproductive rights in the 1990s,” the author writes.

Most importantly, parents need to be sure students have safe, reliable plans for birth control — something they should have regardless of where they go to school, but extra-important where their reproductive freedom is curtailed. If you have the means, you might even offer to cover the cost of condoms, though many schools offer them for free in health centers and even in the dorms. Regardless of whether you agree with your college student’s decisions about their sexual activity, you don’t want to be navigating abortion care in a legally hostile environment.

Support safe and legal abortion wherever it’s available. My home state of Illinois is a de-facto island of reproductive autonomy in an ultra-restrictive sea. Though I’ve advocated for abortion rights since fundraising for NARAL when I was in college, after Dobbs I began looking for practical, ground-level ways to help. I’d long supported groups like the Yellowhammer Fund, which helps Alabama women obtain abortions, but then I came across news of an abortion and women’s health clinic opening in Carbondale, Illinois. At first, the location seemed strange and out of the way. Why there? Because, it turns out, that town is on a train line from Memphis, where a state-wide ban in Tennessee forced the clinic’s other location to stop offering abortions. These days, my donations go to places like that clinic, which need them now more than ever before.

In 2023, my younger daughter decided to go to college in a virulently anti-abortion state, too, across another border. Six-and-a-half hours apart, the two offspring of my uterus are living where the uterus is owned by the state. Both of them were gobsmacked by Dobbs but also — because of their proximity to home and our promise that we had the means to help if needed — defiant about not letting it dictate their college decisions.

I’ve insisted that they register to vote in their college towns, and they both have. They’ve made it clear to their friends that they (and we) are available to help if the need arises (a privilege we have because neither of my children live in states with bounty laws or travel restrictions). All of this is good, but I wish it wasn’t necessary.

My older daughter is finishing her studies in the spring and will be a licensed teacher. When I asked if she’d like to stay and look for a job there, she shook her head. There’s no way, she said, that she could continue to live in a state where her choices are so limited. She plans to come home, taking the education she got in a red state and putting it to work in a blue one. Until both of my daughters leave their anti-choice states, though, they’ll be voting to improve the reproductive landscapes there — and I’ll be advocating for change from here.

Debi Lewis has written for The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Wired, and HuffPost and published the memoir “KITCHEN MEDICINE” in 2022. She is at work on a novel about abortion in the Midwest in the 1960s.

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