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California universities provide free abortion pills by law. Their students don't know

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In California, public universities are required to provide abortion pills to students who want them. It turns out few universities actually tell students the medication is available. Here's Jacki Fortier with LAist.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: When Deanna Gomez found out she was pregnant last fall, the timing couldn't have been worse. She worked 60 hours a week at two jobs while taking a full class load at Cal State San Bernardino. She didn't feel ready for a child, not now.

DEANNA GOMEZ: I grew up poor, and I don't want that for my children, like, ever.

FORTIER: She wanted a medication abortion where she would take one pill at the doctor's office and another pill a day later to induce cramping and bleeding and empty her uterus. Gomez didn't bother going to the university health clinic, thinking it was only for basic health needs.

GOMEZ: Because that's exactly how it was explained to me.

FORTIER: She ended up driving more than 300 miles to three different medical offices around Southern California, spending hundreds of dollars. She had no idea she was entitled to a free medication abortion right on campus.

GOMEZ: If I had known that, I would have taken advantage of it. I think emotionally, it would have taken a lot of stress off of me because I would have been on campus. I spent a lot of time driving around after work, switching schedules, putting my homework on the back burner.

FORTIER: A year ago, California became the first state to require all of its public universities to provide the abortion pill to students. But basic information on where or how students can obtain those pills is still lacking and often nonexistent. Gomez owed hundreds for the medical care and gasoline. She had to work overtime shifts at her two jobs and missed a full month of classes, jeopardizing her planned December graduation date.

CONNIE LEYVA: So everything that you said was the reason and the impetus for the bill, that students had to miss class, that it was too costly. They had to go to several locations.

FORTIER: Connie Leyva is a former state senator who authored the law. The data shows women who have a child while in college are less likely to graduate than those who do not. Leyva said she was focused on that and neglected a requirement to tell students.

LEYVA: I don't know that we ever talked about including something - advertising, basically - that you could get a medicated abortion on campus. So it definitely wasn't ever taken out of the bill.

FORTIER: For once, funding isn't an issue. Each campus has access to $200,000 in private funds to provide medication abortions, and they are allowed to spend some of that money on outreach.

LEYVA: You know, I would love to see someone who's still in the legislature take that up and make it a requirement that the schools have to provide the information so that the students know.

FORTIER: At Deanna Gomez's school, Cal State San Bernardino, abortion as an option was only mentioned in one place - in small letters on a poster inside the exam rooms at the health center. A student wouldn't see it until they were already waiting for a doctor or nurse. Clinic director Beth Jaworski.

BETH JAWORSKI: We need to work harder if there is a student who needed the service and wasn't aware that they could access it through us and not have to pay for it. But it's one student. We haven't been providing the service very long. It's been just about a year now.

FORTIER: After our interview, medication abortion was added to the clinic's website. Several other campus health centers have followed suit since we started investigating. But Deanna Gomez wants more, including flyers, emails and Instagram posts directed at both faculty and students. She says universities should be as vocal about abortion pills as they are about sporting events.

GOMEZ: You want to market the football games. Do you want to market volleyball games. You know, why is that important, and abortions are not?

FORTIER: Gomez did graduate from Cal State San Bernardino, becoming the first person in her family to earn a bachelor's degree, but she's angry at her alma mater. She wants to know why universities keep abortion pills a secret when the medication could help students like her. For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles.

RASCOE: This story comes from NPR's partnership with LAist and KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Fortier