How the repeal of Roe v. Wade affects college students in states like Texas, Pa.: 'I felt like women everywhere were back at square one'

·14-min read
Megaphone emblazoned with college logos and words: My body, my choice.
College students across the country are reckoning with the overturn of Roe v. Wade in both liberal and conservative cities. (Photo: Yahoo Life/ Getty Images)

This story was originally published on Sept. 22, 2022 at 10:39 a.m. ET, before an Indiana judge blocked the enforcement of the state's abortion ban.

Lucy Rath, a 22-year-old rising junior at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., has returned to campus this fall with something new to consider on top of her workload: the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

While abortion remains legal in Pennsylvania so far, the state's 1982 Abortion Control Act, now in effect once again because of Roe’s reversal, requires counseling and a 24-hour waiting period, and abortion government funding is limited (though it’s all subject to change in the upcoming election). So the potential consequences of Rath traveling to Pennsylvania from her home state of Montana, where the right to abortion is currently protected by the state’s constitution, are alarming.

“When deciding whether or not to enroll at F&M, I did take politics into consideration,” Rath tells Yahoo Life. "I knew that I wanted to attend a progressive institution located in a forward-thinking community. I felt that F&M, as well as Lancaster city, was a good fit for me in this manner.”

Now she’s not so sure. And she’s far from alone.

“Last year, people weren’t going in and saying, ‘If I need an abortion, what would be my plan?’ It wasn’t part of the planning process,” says Bari Norman, head counselor at Expert Admissions, a concierge service that helps prospective college students identify their best university fit. Now, she adds, students are “going to have some conversations that certainly didn’t happen previously.”

An outlier of the Northeast

Because of its old Abortion Control Act, Pennsylvania is one of a few Northeast region states with limitations, causing concern for Rath’s parents.

“I know that they worry about … how difficult it would be to access care since myself and many of my peers do not have access to reliable transportation — the nearest Planned Parenthood is 30 minutes from F&M — [or] family nearby or the ability to miss multiple days of school to receive this care if needed,” she says.

For now, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has both signed an executive order to allow out-of-state residents to come to Pennsylvania for reproductive health care services and filed a lawsuit to block restrictions and ensure that abortions remain legal. But with state elections on Nov. 8, those measures hang in the balance — despite a recent poll showing that a majority of Pennsylvanians want abortion to remain legal, at least in some cases.

Meanwhile, Rath has been concerned with what she sees as the school’s lack of communication on the situation.

While F&M does not address reproductive health on its website, the college’s office of communications provided a statement to Yahoo Life, noting, in part, that it will “continue to support the health of its students through on-campus resources,” and that anyone “concerned about how the Supreme Court decision may impact them or their loved ones” should speak with “human resources or their medical provider about resources available to them.”

Image of school desk next to medical exam table.
For students in Pennsylvania, access to abortion care has become extremely limited. (Collage: Yahoo Life/ Getty Images)

Rath plans to remain vigilant when it comes to putting her own safeguards in place.

“I have talked to many close friends … and we are all concerned about the logistics of abortion access in the state, and how we can support one another if need be,” she says, noting that they’d strongly consider crossing the border into Maryland to access abortion care, which is available same-day, without any waiting period.

“Ultimately,” she says, “I hope that my peers will make informed decisions about their reproductive health.”

A threat to the Midwest

The future of abortion care throughout the Midwest is still in flux for many states, including Michigan.

“I was heartbroken,” Jess D’Agostino, 21, a returning senior at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, tells Yahoo Life about the Roe decision. “In the matter of moments, I felt like women everywhere were back at square one. We already had so much work left to be done on the road to equality,” says D’Agostino, a political science major and senior editor for the student-run Michigan Daily newspaper. While she was initially interested in attending college in a “blue wall” state like Michigan — where there’s a divide among rural and urban voters’ political leanings, so she could gain exposure to different perspectives — she’s now questioning that decision.

Originally from New Jersey, D’Agostino is among University of Michigan’s 48% of undergraduates from out of state. And this, she explains, is just a piece of her privilege when it comes to the possibility of abortion bans in Michigan.

“I am a white woman from a financially stable family, and I am very thankful that if I were in a complicated situation regarding abortion, I would have the means or accessibility to travel,” she says. “I know that I am supported and protected by my entire family if I am ever in a harmful situation.”

While abortions remain legal in Michigan following a judge’s Sept. 7 ruling that the state’s 1931 ban was unconstitutional, the state’s Supreme Court has put the question of whether or not to cement abortion rights in the state constitution to a Nov. 8 ballot vote.

“The Michigan ruling was certainly a positive announcement,” D’Agostino says. “I think this does not indicate that this issue is at all moot. However, I am very thankful there is still time and room to debate and work on the fight for abortion rights in Michigan.” And at the University of Michigan, at least, students have been told by the administration that “high-quality, safe reproductive care” will remain a top priority.

Over the state border in Wisconsin, Kelsey Space, a 21-year-old student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, wishes that she had a similar sense of security, telling Yahoo Life that “nobody knew how [the overturn] would affect us” while returning to campus. And a statement published by the university’s then-interim Chancellor John Karl Scholz reflects that concern.

“We know this uncertainty may affect some members of our community more than others,” the statement reads in part. “We will continue to work to understand the full impact of the Supreme Court’s decision and assess its implications for the campus community.”

University Health Services for the school has provided a list of abortion resources and other types of assistance for pregnant students in neighboring states, as physicians within the state are largely operating as if the ban is in place. Statewide, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has filed a lawsuit to block a pre-Roe ban, pointing to a pair of inconsistent abortion laws on the books.

Space finds a bit of solace in knowing that the liberal city of Madison will continue to lead the charge on pushing progressive laws and advocating for reproductive rights. And D’Agostino has pledged to do her part by covering the evolving conversation around Roe v. Wade for The Michigan Daily “at every chance I get,” she says.

Meanwhile, those returning to the nearby state of Indiana face not only uncertainty, but up until Thursday, an outright ban.

The state was the first to have lawmakers sign a near-total abortion ban post-Roe, as opposed to others that had trigger laws ready to become activated. On Thursday, a judge blocked the enforcement of Indiana's abortion ban, according to the state ACLU.

Matisse Laufgraben, a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington, tells Yahoo Life that she was immediately “terrified" of the ban.

I have never felt so small and so powerless.Matisse Laufgraben

“It’s so difficult to put into words the way I felt when I found out Roe v. Wade had been overturned,” she says. “I have never felt so small and so powerless. More than anything, I was terrified of the fact that millions of people with the capacity to become pregnant were probably feeling the exact same way I was feeling.”

The 19-year-old, who is the director of sexual well-being for the university’s student-led Culture of Care, conducts conversations about sex positivity and provides condoms and resources for sexual health care. Aside from the inevitable alarm regarding students’ lack of access to abortion care within the state, Laufgraben believes the ban will also create a bigger stigma around the existing hook-up culture on campus. “I do expect these laws to increase fear and shame, especially for the people who have the capacity to become pregnant. It is put all onto the person who could obtain pregnancy to resist sex and be ashamed of their sexual nature,” she says.

Indiana University hasn’t made any public statements in response to the Supreme Court decision or the state’s implemented ban, and the school did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. IU-Bloomington’s health center has removed information about abortion care and resources from its website, while sections for gynecological health and contraception remain.

Laufgraben says that the Indiana University Student Government announced plans to provide free emergency contraceptives, including Plan B, to students while funding and supplies last. Laufgraben has taken action herself by co-founding Hoosiers for Choice alongside a fellow classmate.

“We created this because it was a way to make us feel like we weren’t powerless. Like our voices mattered,” Laufgraben says of the platform built to both inform about and fundraise for resources, and to encourage people to register to vote in the state. “In a time like this, yes, we need to feel our emotions and cry our tears. But we also need to fight.”

That work is behind her decision to stay in Indiana despite being from New Jersey, where her reproductive rights are protected.

“I see myself continuing my education at IU because I have so much work to do and so many messages I still need to spread through campus,” she says. “However, I do now urge high schoolers to take into consideration these laws when applying to school. I think it would’ve been something I would have considered when applying.”

Some students, of course, are facing even more imminent threats.

Down South...

“After we all heard the news [about the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade], a friend called me,” Carrington Blair, a junior at Jackson State University, in Jackson, Miss., tells Yahoo Life. “She actually found out that she was pregnant.”

Now, she says, the new abortion restrictions in Mississippi will heavily affect her friend’s decision-making process.

Jackson State is an HBCU, part of the system of Historically Black Colleges and Universities that are widely regarded as meccas of inclusion, advancement and opportunity for Black students. However, roughly 90% of all HBCUs are located in the largely conservative South, complicating the current reproductive-rights situation.

“As a young Black female, my first thoughts were, like, ‘This is just scary.’ The world is already scary, but it just keeps getting scarier,” says Blair, who now resides in a state where a ready-and-waiting trigger ban prohibits all abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

Blair, who was born and raised in Houston and attended Louisiana State University her freshman year of college, is very familiar with the conservative politics deeply enmeshed with the South. But now, with her friend’s predicament, it’s beyond hypotheticals.

Image of backpack next to pregnancy test stick against pink background.
Students in the South face the strictest abortion laws in the nation. (Collage: Yahoo Life/ Getty Images)

“Now [my friend] has to decipher whether she wants to keep [the pregnancy] or not ... She didn’t tell her mom or dad, but she called the doctors and the clinics, and they are actually telling her on the phone, ‘We do not carry those procedures anymore, we can’t help you,’” she says.

Still, Blair, like Laufgraben, has no intention of packing up any time soon.

“Leaving never crossed my mind,” she says. Instead, Blair has found renewed purpose in pursuing her criminal justice degree in a region that could use her help.

But over in Texas, which has some of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country, being brave on campus can feel even more difficult. Michelle Udalor, a freshman at Texas Tech in Lubbock, was apprehensive even before the Roe reversal.

“That was definitely a big hesitation, [the school] being a small town, very conservative. I heard stories about people being [racially] profiled and stuff,” Udalor, who is Black, tells Yahoo Life. “Coming from Houston, a bigger city, I knew [there were] not going to be as many people that looked like me [in Lubbock].”

Further, in 2021, 61% of Lubbock voters backed an ordinance to make it a “sanctuary city for the unborn” — outlawing abortions in the city’s limits. The ordinance went into effect in May 2021 — a little over a year before Roe was officially overturned.

I felt like I wouldn't be accepted for what I believe in.Michelle Udalor

As a prospective student with two older siblings who already attended Texas Tech, Udalor had ample opportunity to ponder the possible effects of the move.

“I felt like I wouldn’t be accepted for what I believe in,” she says, explaining that the school’s reputable nursing program won her over in the end. “In Houston, I could easily tell people my beliefs on Roe v. Wade, because a lot of people have the same belief as me. But here it’s a little bit harder to do that, and you have to be a little bit more hush-hush about it.”

While she’s accepted there will be inevitable differences of opinions over the next four years, she finds solace in knowing that this phase of her life is only temporary, as she has no intentions of making Lubbock her permanent home.

“It’s definitely a place, like, once I’m done, I want to leave,” Udalor says. “I’m really just here for the school,” which, according to its health center’s website, does offer various birth control and reproductive wellness services.

Not everyone wants to move away, though.

Paxton Smith, who is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t feel that the repeal of Roe v. Wade is a reason to leave her home state.

Smith, 19, grew up in Dallas and ignited nationwide pro-choice conversations with her viral 2021 high-school graduation speech. She tells Yahoo Life that even with a strong opposition to the overturning of the landmark abortion case, she has no plans on leaving Texas because of restrictions on abortion rights.

“I love Texas. I love the culture here. I love being in this place. I love the people,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I’m very fortunate that I do have the resources, if I need them, to be able to travel out of the state [to get an abortion] if push really comes to shove. So for me, I don’t think Roe would be a triggering point for me to move out.”

Texas’s trigger law, which went into effect on Aug. 25, makes all abortions illegal, from the point of fertilization, with the exception of “a life-threatening physical condition aggravated by, caused by, or arising from a pregnancy.” There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Further, termination of pregnancy by medical providers is now a felony offense, leaving doctors to face fines of $100,000 or life in prison.

“The whole situation is really scary to me, because Texas passed the abortion ban when that was an unconstitutional ban ... and got away with it. And now Roe has been overturned, but they still let that [state law] stand when it was in place,” Smith says, referring to the Texas Heartbeat Act, banning abortion after six weeks, well before many women even know they are pregnant.

Still, politics did play a role in her decision to attend college in a famously liberal Texas city.

“I did want to go to a school that was not conservative, where a lot of the students weren’t conservative,” she explains.

As for what her future holds, Smith says motherhood may change her stance.

“I do want children, but I don’t know if Texas is the safest place to be pregnant,” she explains. “Moving out of the state might be the best choice for me if I choose to start a family, not just for my health and the health of my future baby, but also for their basic rights. What options are open to them when they need them?”

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