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Right-Wing Members of Congress Push Anti-Abortion Measure on College Campuses

The disingenuously named “Pregnant Students’ Rights Act” offers no real support to pregnant and parenting students.

Rep. Ashley Hinson leaves a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on October 12, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

On the face of it, House Bill 6914, passed just days before the annual anti-abortion “March for Life” in late January, sounds benign. Its introductory paragraph seems straightforward: “to require institutional higher education to disseminate information on the rights of, and accommodations and resources for, pregnant students.”

But a few paragraphs later, the bill reveals its true mission: fearmongering about the alleged physical and emotional harm caused by abortion. Among its unsubstantiated claims: People who end unwanted pregnancies are 115 percent more likely to develop suicidal ideation, 220 percent more likely to abuse marijuana and 110 percent more likely to rely on alcohol. Furthermore, the bill misleadingly claims that students who have abortions are more likely to become depressed or anxious than their peers and, additionally, suffer from physical ailments that rarely impact others in their age group. It is worth noting that the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Physicians for Reproductive Health, and numerous other medical experts have consistently debunked these assertions.

Targeting College Students

That the bill zeroes in on college students is not an accident and is a direct result of a 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report which found that 30 percent of all U.S. abortions are performed on people between the ages of 20 and 24. According to bill sponsor Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), “Women on college campuses may fear institutional reprisal, loss of athletic scholarship, and possible negative impact on academic opportunities during pregnancy and after childbirth” — fears that prompted her to write, and push for, passage of the act. (Hinson did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview.)

As written, the legislation amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 and prohibits both public and private colleges and universities from encouraging students to have abortions. “They should be surrounded by support and empowered to continue their education and their pregnancies,” Hinson told her colleagues at a hearing on the measure.

But the act, which has no financial allocations behind it, does not do this. Instead, it puts the onus on higher ed to “disseminate information” to pregnant students about the location and hours of resources in all student handbooks. Such “resources” include crisis pregnancy centers — organizations that typically offer free pregnancy tests and sonograms, counsel against abortion, and provide minimal short-term support, from diapers to formula, alongside a hefty helping of misinformation. The legislation further requires that this information be shared at student orientations, on college websites, and at campus health and counseling centers. Abortion, unsurprisingly, is never mentioned as a pregnancy option.

“From the name you’d get the impression that the Pregnant Students’ Rights Act was giving pregnant students’ rights and support,” Bayliss Fiddiman, director of educational equity and senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center, told Truthout. “But it does nothing to provide the resources that pregnant, and later parenting, students need to complete their education.”

Already, Fiddiman said, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects such students by “prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.” And while she and other pro-choice advocates agree that Title IX needs to be strengthened — something that the Biden-Harris administration has promised to do — the Pregnant Students’ Rights Act fails to give students the information they need to make informed reproductive choices.

What’s more, Fiddiman said that if Congress really wanted to help pregnant and parenting students — 4.8 million people or 22 percent of all undergraduates — it would, first and foremost, help them access affordable, reliable, on- or near-campus child care. “Pregnant and parenting students also need housing support. They need flexible course attendance policies and an opportunity to make up missed work if they are sick, have a sick child or have a medical appointment during class time. They need better transportation to make it easier to travel to and from school. They need nutritious food,” she said.

Statistically, student parents have higher grade point averages than students without kids. They want to be in school, Fiddiman notes, but the Pregnant Students’ Rights Act does not get at the crux of their needs, or even address the fact that 52 percent of students who have children leave college before completing their studies.

What it does, she continued, is “chip away at reproductive rights using college students” as a means to an end.

Jessica Lee, director of the Pregnant Scholar Initiative of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California College of Law in San Francisco, notes that the timing of the act’s introduction and passage comes “at the same time that many legislators are bashing Title IX.” The Biden-Harris administration’s updated Title IX regulations, likely to be unveiled this spring, she says, “are expected to be the largest advance in pregnant and parenting students’ rights in 50 years.”

If Congress really wanted to help pregnant and parenting students … it would … help them access affordable, reliable, on- or near-campus child care.

Moreover, to really help students in a timely manner — whether, for example, they need information about safety protocols in science labs during pregnancy or are requesting a temporary accommodation — requires robust funding for on-campus Title IX offices; once again, the Pregnant Students’ Rights Act does nothing to ensure this.

Policies Needed to Address Student Needs

Students, meanwhile, know what they need to finish their degrees, but as the dropout rate attests, these supports are rarely provided.

“I got my associate’s degree in 2014. Then a lot happened,” Nadya Radaev, a computer science major at Colorado State University, told Truthout. “I became a mom in 2017 and for a while, I was the only one working so that my husband could complete his degree. I’m still working full-time now and returned to college in January 2023. Last semester, I took two classes, eight credits, and finished with an A and a B, but I never have time off. I work Monday to Friday and do homework on weekends. In order to finish in two-and-a-half or three years I’ll also need to take classes during the summer.”

Radaev’s classes are fully remote; nonetheless, she said that learning online has been difficult. “When you go to class, you hear what you have to do, but online it’s easy to miss something,” she said. “I try to be proactive, but last semester I did not realize that the lectures were posted online. The teaching assistant never mentioned this and it was not on the syllabus. I understand that remote teaching is new for the instructors, too, but there has to be better communication.”

Despite this frustration, Radaev says the hardest issue for her is balancing care of her son with completing her studies. “My husband and I come from Russia and do not have family in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s just us, but I know I have to do this. I need a degree.”

Vanessa Chen faced a similar challenge. As an accounting major at Baruch College of the City University of New York, she was able to enroll her daughter in the college’s subsidized Early Childhood Learning Center where she paid just $10 a day. Unfortunately, Chen told Truthout, the center closed at 5:30 pm and did not have evening hours. “There was one semester when my daughter was 3 and I had to take her with me to a class that went from 7:00-8:30 pm,” Chen said. “We did not get home until 9:30 or later, but I had no choice since I needed the course and that was the only time it was offered. Thankfully, the professor did not object to my child being with me.”

Years earlier, psychotherapist Amira Martin had faced a similar situation. “My second son was born in January 2001 and I graduated that June. When he was about a month old, I began to take him to class. My older son was in kindergarten by this point. I know that some of my professors did not like me bringing an infant to their classroom, but the child care center on campus did not accept children until they were toilet trained. I felt I had no other choice and completed my final semester with Elias in tow,” she told Truthout.

Still, Martin stresses that the college could have made it easier for her and other students with children to stay enrolled. Among her recommendations: opening subsidized child care slots to infants and toddlers; installing changing tables in all bathrooms; and establishing clubs for parents to enable them to socialize, share information and support one another.

The bill … is a “thinly-veiled anti-abortion law” that ignores the key barriers to college completion for the majority of college students who have children.

Despite the fact that she finished her undergraduate degree more than 20 years ago, Martin says that many of her current psychotherapy clients face many of the same issues she faced in 2001.

That said, small shifts can make a world of difference — or can make parenting students feel unwelcome.

Brittany Arsiniega found out she was pregnant right before enrolling in a joint PhD/JD program at the University of California in Berkeley and immediately went to student services to ask about pregnancy accommodations. “I was told I had to go from professor to professor and ask each one about their policy. It turned into a clusterfuck, with me knocking on professors’ doors and seeing how nice they wanted to be,” she told Truthout. “My son was born during the semester break and I ended up getting disability accommodations for exams at the end of the term. This gave me time-and-a-half so that I could take breaks and pump during the exams. That summer, I worked as a graduate student instructor; I took the baby with me and breast fed during my office hours. There was on-campus child care but it cost around $2,300 a month, which my husband and I could not afford.”

During her second year, Arsiniega founded a group for students with children. One of their first requests was for a mini refrigerator to be purchased and placed in the lactation room so that expressed milk could be stored.

The request was denied.

“We thought it was a matter of expense, but after another student group offered to buy one for us, we were again told ‘no.’ The administration felt it would be inequitable for the law school to have a mini fridge since lactation rooms in other parts of the university did not have one. One professor actually suggested that we buy and carry Igloo coolers,” she said.

Incidents like Arsiniega’s resonate for Maureen Fadem, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, who was a single mother of two when she began college. “I had my kids as a teenager,” she told Truthout. “Students with children face real struggles. I remember a student coming to my office and bawling her head off because her mother kept telling her that she needed to quit school and focus on her child. The mother was shaming her daughter and relentlessly berating her. This student had to deal with family interference on top of making sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork, delivered and picked up her kid from child care, and paid her living expenses. I went to college while raising two kids and had absolutely no family support, so I understand what students like her are facing.”

That said, despite a slew of unmet needs and ongoing attitudinal roadblocks, there has been some progress.

Barbara Jungwirth, a journalist and translator, attended a public university in the late 1980s as a part-time student. “My daughter was born in 1986 and I began taking classes in 1987. I went to the financial aid office to see if I qualified for any assistance and was given a form that had space for me to itemize my family’s expenditures for rent and food,” she told Truthout. “Child care was not listed as a possible expense. I asked the office worker how to include these fees and was told I couldn’t. The worker then added that my daughter could enroll in the school’s subsidized child care center when she was 3 and suggested I wait until then to return to school.”

Jungwirth did not listen.

But sometime thereafter, students (including Arsiniega) report, the forms were changed to include child care expenditures in the calculation of aid eligibility.

The Pregnant Students’ Rights Act would have done absolutely nothing for any of these students — it would not have helped them pay for child care, or ensured that they have a home, access to nutritious food and medical care, or provide other supports to make college completion easier.

Although the bill has yet to be voted on in the Senate, the Coalition for Pregnant and Parenting Students Advocacy, led by the National Women’s Law Center, is monitoring its congressional progress.

“The bill,” they wrote in a letter to lawmakers, “falls far short of the protections that are actually necessary for pregnant and parenting students and their children,” and is a “thinly-veiled anti-abortion law” that ignores the key barriers to college completion for the majority of college students who have children.

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