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As college students return to Massachusetts campuses, they'll find new abortion care options

University Health Services at UMass Amherst.
University Health Services at UMass Amherst.

College students from around the country are returning to the region. If they're seeking an abortion, even in Massachusetts, the process could be quite different.

A new state law ensures public college and university students in Massachusetts have access to medication abortion through the school's own health services, like on campus at UMass Amherst.

At some smaller, private colleges, health care providers will refer students out.

Jessica LaFleche is a nurse practitioner and the director of health services at Bay Path University in Longmeadow.

If a student is seeking an abortion, LaFleche said, she’ll refer most of them to Planned Parenthood. But the school also has a large online population.

“So I've thought about what happens if a student from a state where abortion is illegal tries to access abortion, and coming up with resourceful ways to help these students access the medical care that they're entitled to,” LaFleche said.

LaFleche said she’ll direct those students to online resources like Plan C, which provides information about where to get abortion pills by mail.

Access and legal protections

Students in the area will be returning to their campuses with a lot of questions, said Carrie Baker, who teaches courses on law and reproductive justice at Smith College. Baker is also a contributing editor at Ms. magazine.

"The law that was passed at the end of July in Massachusetts specifically protects providers for providing care to people from out of state," Baker said. "So if a student does come to Massachusetts and while they're here, receives care from a Massachusetts provider, that provider cannot be sued by somebody in the state that person is from — or by the state themselves pursued in any sort of way."

Provider protections are also in place in other states, including Connecticut and New York.

As the new school year gets underway, Baker said it's rather shocking to have to talk about the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade.

"You know, I always thought this day would come," Baker said. "I hoped it would not. I will definitely talk about Dobbs, and I'll talk in particular about how I'm concerned that the court is prepared to expand Dobbs to contraception and allow states to limit contraception."

Last December, Baker and Julie Mathis at UMass Amherst published a study in the journalContraception. The research calculated the cost, distance and public transit time from the state's 13 public universities to the nearest abortion-providing facilities.

The study determined that "50 to 115 of Massachusetts public university students obtain medication abortion services each month, or 600 to 1,380 each year. "

Students have to travel between 2 and 42 miles to reach the nearest abortion-providing facility, "and that travel time on public transportation ... takes between 18 and 400 minutes."

The study also calculated the average wait time for the first available appointment was eight days.

Telemedicine abortion providers are also available in Massachusetts, and Baker said colleges should list them on their websites along with local caregivers.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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