Reproductive Justice
ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 25: A woman with 'Bans Off' written on her body is seen during a protest against ...

Here’s The Moment This College Protest For Abortion Rights Won Big

“This just feels extremely surreal.”

by Niharika Rao
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On June 24, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the national right to an abortion via their decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, returning the question of abortion access to the states. As of October 2022, 13 states around the country had effectively banned abortion, while other states have rushed to protect it. Around the country, activists — including student activists — are making their voices heard. On Oct. 6, students around the country participated in protests demanding safe abortion access in their states, communities, and schools. That same day, students at Barnard College, part of Columbia University in New York City, won a major victory when the school announced it would begin making medication abortion available at campus health services in the fall of 2023.

On the morning of the Oct. 6 walkout and shortly before Barnard’s announcement, Elite Daily’s senior news editor, Lilli Petersen, spoke with Niharika Rao, 22, a student activist at Barnard involved in organizing the protest. Here’s what they told us about the movement, the victory, and what they both mean for reproductive rights on campus everywhere.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The walkout at Columbia and Barnard is part of a national day of action happening with the Graduate Student Action Network. It’s happening with over 50 other schools in 26 states. At Columbia and Barnard, we’re hoping to have about 150 people. We have a rally planned, and we’re going to have speakers. As the rally is happening, we’re also going to be giving out information about abortion pills, accessible self-managed abortion, and abortion pills by mail in all 50 states. After our rally, we’re going to march down and join other New York City school protests.

At our school, we have three primary demands: First, we’re demanding abortion pills be available at campus clinics and student health centers, which is a campaign we’ve been working for specifically at Barnard and Columbia for the past two-and-a-half years. We also want Columbia to renew the lease of the Red Balloon preschool, which provides day care and child care services to the local community. Reproductive justice isn’t just the ability to not have a child, which is obviously behind our demand for abortion access on campus, but also the ability to have a child, and a vital part of being able to parent a child is access to child care. And then the third demand is around stopping Columbia’s support for a new jail for gender-expansive folks, because abolitionist thinkers tell us no jail can be feminist.

I’m part of the Reproductive Justice Collective (RJC), which is primarily based at Columbia, but we have members from NYU, the City University of New York (CUNY), and the State University of New York (SUNY) networks. We’re a broad student coalition of people in New York fighting for reproductive justice. I co-founded RJC when I was a sophomore with this specific aim to advocate for abortion pills on campus. And it’s since grown into something bigger.

Part of what RJC is fighting for and working on currently is a bill at the state legislature level that would mandate abortion pills on campuses at all public universities, like the bill recently passed in California. Yes, we want abortion pills at private schools like Barnard and Columbia, but true access and actually being able to reduce barriers for everyone means having abortion pills available across the city, including at public schools in the CUNY and SUNY systems. If we have access to pills on campus, that eases the strain on clinics serving non-students and people traveling to New York for care. Student power and collective organizing has the potential to be so impactful, especially in a place like New York where we can unite many schools and students around a policy that will benefit us all.

The first step of organizing actions like a walkout is finding a very concrete, actionable demand. For students looking to also get involved in a state where abortion is legal, I would encourage organizing for the right to access abortion pills on campus. And if you’re not in a state where abortion is legal, then you can demand things like funding to go out of state, excused absences for needing to travel for an abortion, and expanded access to emergency contraception and birth control. Whatever it is, finding a very specific, concrete demand is extremely important, because once you have a sustained demand, you can plan multiple actions around it.

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The way movements start is through our own communities, and our campaign is a reflection of a campaign started at UC Berkeley in California, where students first began advocating for abortion on campus, which led to the passage of a statewide bill that will now be implemented in January 2023. And in July of this year, Massachusetts passed a similar bill. We are starting in our own backyard, on our own campus, but we’re expanding to reach all of New York.

Halfway through our call, the news breaks — Barnard has committed to providing abortion pills on campus starting in 2023.

I’m in shock. Wow. I’m going to cry.

This just feels extremely surreal, but then also again speaks to the power of community organizing. We have no Board of Trustees connections. We are not powerful alumni. We’re literally just a bunch of students coming together, demanding this. And yes, it did take two-and-a-half years, but next fall, students on this campus are going to have access to medication abortion! That is a concrete benefit, a concrete way to help our clinics and the folks coming to New York seeing access to abortion. This will help folks across the country.

Because of our campaign, faculty have told us that other Ivy League institutions and other New York institutions were waiting to see how the school would respond. We know they talk. So, I think this is a really important moment. It starts at one school, it starts in a backyard community, but it never ends there.