As Barnard rolls out medication abortion, student activists reflect on the past and future of reproductive healthcare on campus.
By Miska Lewis
On Oct. 6, 2022, Barnard announced it would begin offering medication abortion in fall 2023. The news reached students through a schoolwide email, followed by articles from The New York Times, CNN, NPR, and NBC, which broadcast the new policy to a national readership. Pledging to “train providers in the provision of medication abortions” by the following year, then-president Sian Beilock and Vice President of Health and Wellness Dr. Marina Catallozzi were featured prominently in high-profile coverage about the historic move. Barnard is one of the only private universities to have initiated plans to offer the service on its campus, making its response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade four months prior particularly active.
In an email sent to the Barnard student body this August, Catallozzi announced that the rollout of medication abortion at Barnard’s Primary Care Health Service would be delayed to the spring. Dr. Sarah Ann Anderson-Burnett, who joined Barnard in 2022, obtained a grant issued by Project ACCESS, a program created through the partnership of Reproductive Health Access Project and Primary Care Development Corporation that facilitates medication abortion in primary care settings. The $5,000 will go toward putting “the necessary clinical, administrative, logistical, and financial systems in place to begin providing medication abortion as an option at Barnard College,” wrote Catallozzi.
That Barnard will imminently offer medication abortion—particularly when its effort is bolstered by abortion access organizations—is a definite victory. With 60% of abortions in the U.S. obtained by people in their 20s, college campuses are composed of a demographic with a need for reliable access to this procedure. Still, the postponements and prolongations feel familiar to the Reproductive Justice Collective, a subset of students who have argued for the necessity of medication abortion on campus since 2020 and have had an often strained relationship with administrators like Catallozzi. One glance at their website and Instagram makes clear the organization has been advocating publicly for medication abortion since at least August 2021.
When the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization hearings began in December 2021, RJC had already partnered with Elizabeth Platt, a Columbia lawyer, to hold information sessions on the state of abortion rights. They encouraged students to sign petitions insisting on access to abortion pills on campus, garnering over 1,300 signatures, and called out TFP Student Action, a Catholic organization that advocates against abortion, for their efforts to stigmatize abortion on Columbia’s campus. In April 2022, RJC directed students in a week of abortion advocacy, which included requesting medication abortion availability at Barnard and Columbia, fundraising for Buckle Bunnies, a reproductive justice organization in Texas, and raising awareness about online access to abortion pills. While focusing on their public programming, RJC attempted to set up a synchronous meeting with Catallozzi and her team. But once they made it to the same table, RJC was frustrated by Barnard administrators’ inability to share specifics about the timing of implementation or whether the school had decided to provide medication abortions at all.
Collective members were surprised by the rhetoric that Barnard eventually adopted. As Catallozzi put it in a recent email to me, medication abortions were a “natural step in caring for a population of college students who can become pregnant,” language that calls back verbatim to her remarks in a 2022 interview with The New York Times. For RJC, framing the decision as “natural” felt dismissive of their two years of advocacy and hard work. In the flurry of news coverage that followed Barnard’s announcement, Elle was one of the few outlets to substantially mention RJC’s advocacy and highlight campus activism as the reason Barnard has “long been part of the ongoing fight for reproductive rights.” The piece included interviews with now-graduated RJC members Maya Corral and Niharika Rao, who described the process of founding RJC in 2020 and their hopes to expand the Collective’s scope to New York City and the state.
Months before the Elle piece, The New Yorker covered that first meeting between RJC and Catallozzi in July 2022. In response to RJC’s demand for over-the-counter abortion services on campus, Catallozzi explained that students could access abortions at nearby clinics with “extensive expertise.” She also described the steps that would be necessary for Barnard to begin offering medication abortions, including “checking the scope of the university’s malpractice insurance and training medical staff in identifying ectopic pregnancies,” and said no decision had been made on the subject. In an email to me, Catallozzi wrote that “offering medication abortion was already on Barnard’s radar before any discussions with the RJC,” a statement that, at the least, erases ongoing communication with RJC since 2021. “Barnard’s statement was like, ‘This was our idea,’” said Ana Sofia Harrison, BC ’24. “How were news sources gonna know that it wasn’t?”
One may reasonably wonder why a student group—which has seen one of its major demands met—would expend effort on retroactively getting credit. For RJC members, an acknowledgment of their years of work is a necessary demonstration that Barnard recognizes students as change-making agents on campus and will take their other demands seriously. RJC wants Barnard to be an example of what it can look like for a college to actively and eagerly collaborate with its students. To view them as more than a vulnerable group to be serviced, but also as advocates who can partake in equal dialogue with the college, Barnard could expand on the conversations they foster through Fireside Chats with the college’s president, for example.
RJC has long emphasized the importance of PCHS working in tandem with student abortion doulas. They highlight the efficacy of the Wellness Spot, a cozy, lamp-lit room on the first floor of Reid Hall that was established by Barnard in 1993 and is staffed by trained peer educators. Students can access information on safe sex and mental health resources, or attend workshops on topics as varied as self-care, communication, and healthy eating. “The Wellness Spot is an example of how well peer-to-peer support works,” Harrison said. Independent of PCHS, the Wellness Spot models how a student-driven organization can collaborate with the Barnard administration toward collective goals. In the past, peer educators have accessed IUD doula training through the Wellness Spot; patients receiving an IUD can opt into student accompaniment during the short but often painful procedure. The success of this program is one reason RJC believes PCHS should consider staffing abortion doulas, trained by the Wellness Spot or RJC, when medication abortions become available on campus. Isabel Villa Real Saebra, BC ’23, who had an abortion while in college, believes a peer support network is crucial for students experiencing the same. She hopes Barnard will prioritize emotional support when providing medication abortions: “Feeling supported is not just infrastructurally speaking,” she said. “It’s feeling supported within the community where you are.” The emotional support and familiarity with the procedure that medication abortion doulas could offer would only reinforce Barnard’s focus on multidimensional reproductive care.
RJC’s proposal of such programs to the Wellness Spot, in hopes that they will act as a liaison with PCHS, has been met with gestures towards logistical challenges. “They said any doula or chaperone work is subject to HIPAA, and, for a school, FERPA regulations,” Sydney Johnson, BC ’25 says. HIPAA, the federal law that preserves the confidentiality of patient information, and FERPA, which protects educational records, are invoked when student or patient data is shared without consent, typically by an authority figure such as a healthcare provider.“We’re not medical professionals in any way,” Johnson says, frustrated at the lack of clarity as to how exactly doulas would violate these regulations. They added that the Wellness Spot told RJC to “reach out directly to PCHS.” When I asked, Catallozzi avoided specific questions about RJC’s doula proposals, instead saying that “Some individuals may wish to consult with their peers or join peer support groups” but “that must be their decision to make.” This answer seems to misunderstand how trained peer support in the form of doulas may serve as a vital supplemental resource beyond what a friend may be able to offer.
In spring 2022, RJC began offering abortion doula training through a partnership with Advocates for Youth, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to sexuality education and health. The second cohort completed the training in spring of 2023, and RJC plans to host another session next semester. When, in early 2023, Barnard launched the Reproductive Health Grant, which distributed $25,000 to five proposals submitted by Barnard affiliates in “research, programming, and teaching related to reproductive rights in a post-Roe context,” RJC applied to fund future abortion doula training. Though they were ultimately not one of the recipients, Erin Donahue, BC ’25, received a grant to partner with Chanel Porchia-Albert from Ancient Song Doula Services to certify Barnard students as doulas. “They’re going to be full-spectrum doulas, which includes abortion doulas,” says Villa Real Saebra. “It’s amazing.” When RJC learned it did not receive the Barnard grant, the collective—acting on a long-held ambition to expand beyond campus—created New York Abortion Doula. The collective currently provides “intersectional, community-centered abortion support,” and offers New York-based resources for abortion access and information with hopes of forming a more robust network of doulas across the city.
Barnard’s commitment to providing medical abortions underscores the role colleges can play in their students’ healthcare. Kylie McCombs, a junior at Bryn Mawr College and president of its Feminist Coalition, told me her school did not directly communicate with students regarding the ruling or its effects on abortion access. Barnard’s singular decision also reflects its unique position relative to other historically women’s colleges. Kylee Miller, a senior at Mount Holyoke College and member of its Planned Parenthood Generation chapter, noted that Barnard “sets the standard high for other universities with similar endowments; it’s a really great push.” At the same time, those universities serve very different student bodies. According to Miller, at Mount Holyoke “only about 13% of students identify as being straight,” so “a lot of people on campus do not have sexual encounters that could cause them to become pregnant.” Barnard’s proximity to Columbia and the city at large allows for a unique demographic makeup. Instead of offering medication abortions on its own campus, Mount Holyoke is turning to University of Massachusetts Amherst, a partner school with a significantly larger student body. “I was kind of surprised when I heard about Barnard’s news because of its size,” she confesses. “It’s really surprising that there wouldn’t be a very easy way for students from Barnard to access medication abortion through Columbia.”
RJC is focusing its efforts on exactly this. Pushing for Columbia to follow Barnard’s lead, they are aware that, come winter, one could “walk into a Columbia classroom and half the students would have access to medication abortion and half students wouldn’t,” in Harrison’s words. In the 2022 email announcing the implementation of medication abortion, Catallozzi noted that, previously, students could access reproductive care through “services in New York and particularly at CUIMC,” the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Indeed, in the past, Barnard relied on Columbia for reproductive care, prompting the question of why the University has yet to address RJC’s demands for medication abortions on Columbia’s campus.
The creation of the Reproductive Health Grant shows that Barnard is interested in what members of the community have to say about reproductive justice and is willing to fund a variety of projects on reproductive rights and access. These initiatives align with Catallozzi’s statement in her 2022 announcement email that her team values the “many conversations we have had about reproductive health.” It is, she wrote, “critical that we continue listening and learning from our community.” RJC wonders the extent to which the past two years of underwhelming, if not outwardly negative, responses to their advocacy indicate Barnard’s esteem of their efforts. “It’s really disappointing that Barnard has literally not acknowledged any of RJC’s efforts,” Harrison commented. “It has come to a point where they have avoided us in so many ways that it’s almost like they feel called out by us, that it’s a threat instead of a conversation. And what RJC has always wanted is to be in conversation with Barnard in terms of promoting reproductive health access and overall justice around campus.”
In addition to advocating for medication abortion on Columbia’s campus, RJC is also planning to increase programming oriented toward queer and trans healthcare, such as hosting queer sex-ed workshops. Now composed of 60 members, the Collective hopes to continue growing both in size and scope, enshrining an understanding of reproductive health that includes but extends beyond discussions about abortion. They see their responsibility as advocating not only for “students of elite institutions,” says Johnson, but for the principle of universal access to reproductive healthcare. This broad vision is not dissimilar from Barnard’s self-conception as an institution that is “leading the way in supporting reproductive rights,” as the subject line for the schoolwide email announcing abortion medication declared. These students are hoping to remind Barnard of all that that position entails.