At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a YDSA chapter led a campaign that prompted the school to start covering the costs of abortions and other reproductive care. YDSA can and should organize around issues of reproductive justice is critical even where abortion is legal because access is restricted economically.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 Print Issue, which can be found here.
This past year, Wesleyan YDSA led a successful campaign for increased support for reproductive healthcare on our campus. Following months of research and in collaboration with other student groups that focused on healthcare, we produced a set of demands for the administration centered on alleviating economic barriers to access for abortion and other forms of reproductive care. These demands garnered widespread student support as well as support from staff, faculty, parents, and other members of the community, and in May they were accepted in full by the administration.
Wesleyan is located in Connecticut, a state that protects abortion rights. Several Planned Parenthood clinics are a short drive from Wesleyan. In the past, if students contacted the student health center about obtaining an abortion, they would be referred to one of these clinics. However, physical access and legality do not equate to economic access. Previously, students were left to navigate transportation to and from the clinics on their own, and foot what may be a substantial bill depending on their insurance plan. All students are required to either pay for Wesleyan’s health insurance or submit proof of outside health insurance, but different companies cover differing amounts of abortion / reproductive healthcare procedures. The health center’s website also provided very limited information about reproductive healthcare options on campus. Reproductive healthcare should be a right, but it was being treated as a privilege, only afforded to students with the institutional knowledge and the economic resources to seek out information and referrals and to pay for costly procedures.
After YDSA suggested that chapters center reproductive justice in their 2022-2023 campaigns, we sought out information on reproductive healthcare available on campus and identified what needs were going unmet. We reached out to student groups that had experience advocating around issues of sexual and reproductive health – including Wesleyan Reproductive Advocacy and Legislation (WRAL), Adolescent Sexual Health Awareness (ASHA), and the Wesleyan Doula Project – seeking their expertise and attempting to work together rather than duplicating work that was already being done. Leaders of these groups indicated that they could use support to convince the administration to increase their support of reproductive healthcare on campus, and our chapter’s experience with organizing pressure campaigns positioned us well to help with this work.
Even before we publicly launched the campaign, working with other groups who had more community-based expertise also helped us build democratic buy-in not just within the group but within the broader student body. Ensuring buy-in was a major focus of this campaign and was what eventually helped us win.
With help from members of these other health-centered student groups and insights from meetings with representatives from campus health offices, we formulated four major demands of the administration. First, we asked that the university provide free emergency contraceptives (including Plan B and Ella) to students, regardless of their insurance plan. Second, we asked the university to cover all costs after insurance (regardless of how much insurance covered) for students’ abortions at nearby clinics, including the costs of safe transportation to and from the clinic. Third and forth, we requested that the university provide assistance for students seeking information about reproductive care and abortions over breaks and during periods that they aren’t on campus (like when studying abroad), and that information about reproductive healthcare be more widely accessible on campus and on the health center’s website.
Before publishing these demands, we wanted to broaden our coalition and ensure we had support. We reached out to other student organizations and faculty and staff members and asked them to sign-on. Among others, our student government, activist organizations focused on other issues, and several professors agreed to co-sponsor the petition. Once we published a petition with these demands, we wanted to share it as widely as possible. We wrote a letter to the editor for our school newspaper, and we tabled in the university center during lunch hour to get signatures and feedback every day the first week after we published the petition. Our goal was to make healthcare on campus more equitable, and to do this, we needed democratic input at every step of the process.
Our process was far from perfect, and we learned a lot throughout it. We realized that if we had expanded our tabling locations earlier, we might have reached a larger cross-section of the student body. However, we were able to get over 700 signatures in the first weeks after going public with our campaign, about a quarter of the undergraduate student body.
This was sufficient pressure to convince the administration that conceding to our demands was necessary. This past spring, the health center started providing students with emergency contraceptives free of charge following student health groups’ and our conversations with them. And starting next fall, the admin has promised that the health center will cover costs after insurance for all abortion-related costs, including transportation to and from clinics, and will update their website to make this information more accessible.
There were certainly political pressures and pragmatic factors that may have convinced the university to agree to our demands quickly. For example, Wesleyan brands itself as a progressive school, and the administration likely considered the fact that conceding to these requests would make them stand out as champions of reproductive healthcare amidst peer institutions. Also, along with our petition, we sent the administration our calculations of what our asks would cost them yearly, and it came out to only about a couple thousand dollars, which is a negligible amount for a private university with an endowment of over 1.5 billion dollars.
Significantly, given its location in Connecticut, Wesleyan didn’t risk any legal challenges by conceding to these demands. The stakes were not as high for the administration – the school had less to lose – so it required less pressure to convince them to concede. The shape and scope of this campaign would have looked very different in a red state, where we and all of the institutions that made our work possible – Planned Parenthood and other clinics, groups organized around issues of reproductive justice – would have been under constant attack.
Grassroots campaigns in such hostile environments are critically important, but it is also important to organize around abortion and reproductive healthcare access in states like Connecticut where it’s still legal. Reproductive healthcare, like all other forms of healthcare, is an economic issue. Access to reproductive healthcare is an intersectional issue that disproportionately affects marginalized communities, such as people of color and queer people. We can’t settle for neoliberal capitalist policies that leave many without this fundamental human right.
Reproductive justice means organizing against all barriers to access, from oppressive laws to lack of transportation to unmanageable costs, and fighting for a future where healthcare is guaranteed. Consequently, reproductive justice is a key issue for people everywhere to organize around, and every win – no matter how big or small it may seem – is a win for the movement as a whole.
Moving forward, we aim to ensure that Wesleyan’s agreement to pay for the excess costs of its students’ reproductive healthcare is widely publicized so that students know about it and so that we can hold the administration to their word. I’m hopeful that other institutions will feel pressure to institute similar policies. I’m reminded of the power of student organizers to create lasting institutional change. Acting as a collective, whether we’re demonstrating against abortion bans, arguing for broader access to healthcare resources, or carrying out any other campaigns to make the world more equitable, we can create the momentum needed for systemic change. More than anything, I’m energized by all of the incredible organizers across the country – and the world – fighting for reproductive rights and I’m excited to keep working alongside all of them.