HBCU students are being disproportionately affected by…

Many of the country’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are scattered across the South, in states where Black Americans, in the wake of the Civil War, pooled their resources and finally gained access to higher education.

Now, however, their descendants are disproportionately losing their right to reproductive health, students at those schools say.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion nationwide, will have a outsize effect on students at HBCUs due to their concentration in states that are restricting access to the procedure. Nearly three-quarters of HBCUs recognized by the Department of Education are in states that have banned or mostly banned abortions. Those 72 schools enroll more than 166,000 students.

Meanwhile, 21 HBCUs are located in states where abortion is currently legal but could be under threat. Maryland, Washington D.C. and Delaware – where abortions are legal and likely to stay that way – have seven historically Black schools between them.

But the Supreme Court’s abortion decision is also energizing student-led movements for more sexual wellness education and wider access to contraceptives on campus.

Student leaders at Dillard University in New Orleans want to make sure students maintain access to contraceptives, said Marissa Pittman, 20, a rising junior and student body president. Paige Hawkins, a rising senior at Clark Atlanta University, runs the school’s chapter of Planned Parenthood Generation Action and said the group plans to host more educational events when the school year starts.

“As the freshmen come in in August, [we want them to know] if you need access to contraceptives, access to safe abortions, please let us know,” said Hawkins, 21, who is studying English. Georgia has a six-week abortion ban from 2019 that is pending in the courts and will likely take effect. “Though this may ban safe abortions, it’s not going to ban abortions,” Hawkins said. “People are going to go through the process of possibly hurting themselves.”

Many of these students, who chose to attend HBCUs, have now found themselves in states where most abortions are illegal. For Kalaya Sibley, 20, attending an HBCU meant carrying on a family tradition and going to a school that was created with students like herself in mind.

“It’s unfair, first of all, and it’s unjust,” Sibley, a rising senior at Dillard, said about the restrictions in Louisiana. The state had an abortion ban that went into effect after the Supreme Court decision, but it was blocked by a judge until a hearing on July 29.

“I believe everyone should have a right to make decisions about their bodies,” Sibley said. “Knowing that people who look like me, and even just women in general, have to experience these roadblocks . . . is defeating.”

Now, it is critical that students know what legal options exist, said Rochelle L. Ford, Dillard’s president.

“I think presidents around the country, regardless of their student population, they have to wrestle with that and provide those services,” Ford said. “That means making sure all students, male and female, know what prevention options are, they know what resources are available to help support them when they might be confronted with having to make decisions about their reproductive health.”

In Texas, officials at Prairie View A&M University plan to bolster existing health education programs, said Tondra L. Moore, the school’s executive director of health services. “While HBCUs are highly concentrated in regions of the U.S. that will most likely limit access to reproductive services, HBCU college health providers are well versed in providing excellent care to students with limited resources,” Moore said in a statement.

Sixty-nine percent of full-time, first-year students at Prairie View receive Pell grants – federal grants reserved for low-income families – which is on par with the need at HBCUs across the country. For these young people, resources are already tight, and traveling out of state for an abortion isn’t financially feasible, students said.

Research indicates the long-term effects of being denied an abortion pose even more economic challenges. A woman who is denied an abortion faces an almost fourfold increase in the odds her household will fall below the poverty line, according to the Turnaway Study, which tracked the effects of unintended pregnancy on women’s lives. She is less likely than a woman who sought and received an abortion to graduate with an advanced degree.

“I think it’ll have a negative effect because most Black women, minority women, usually if they get pregnant and if they’re in school, they don’t finish or they drop out,” said Hope Morgan, 22, a rising senior and criminal justice major at Prairie View.

Many students are afraid of what could happen to themselves or others if they end up with an unwanted pregnancy. Nina Giddens, who is studying public health with a double concentration in prelaw and international affairs at Xavier University of Louisiana, says restrictions on abortion could make what was already a difficult decision even harder.

“I have this fear of what could happen,” said Giddens, 21. “What happens if we’re in a dire situation and this is something that we need?”

At Xavier, a Catholic school in New Orleans, abortion and reproductive health are not often discussed openly, she added. The university’s health center offers testing for sexually transmitted infections, according to its website, but Giddens said condoms and other contraceptives are more difficult to come by. The university does not offer condoms or other contraceptives in the health center, a spokeswoman confirmed. Officials declined to comment further.

In more recent years, however, students have worked with administrators to host seminars about sexual health care and lead peer education groups. “A lot of our push around reproductive justice has been student-led,” Giddens said.

For the rising senior and Atlanta native, the overturning of Roe is strengthening her ties to the South. She wants to continue her education there.

“Black women’s maternal health in America is not in the greatest state,” she said. Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than White women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Me, personally, I’m more determined to disprove myths around reproductive health. I’m more determined to fight for reproductive justice knowing it’s going to disproportionally impact my community.”

Thomas K. Hudson, president of Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., said it is too early to know how abortion access will factor into prospective students’ decisions about where to attend college, but he doesn’t anticipate it becoming an issue.

“Typically our students, they come for the environment, they come for the educational opportunities that we offer,” Hudson said. About two-thirds of Jackson State’s freshman class were out-of-state students during the fall 2020 semester, according to federal data.

In the meantime, Hudson said the school will continue to offer services including free contraceptives, birth control, testing for sexually transmitted infections and mental health counseling.

For students such as Sibley, however, the recent changes in her region are pushing her out.

“I don’t see myself attending law school in a southern state,” said Sibley, holding back tears. The Dallas native said living in the South, where the shadow of Jim Crow still lingers, has taken an emotional toll and “the limiting of abortion access was the cherry on top for me.”

“That is another limitation that I just don’t want to experience,” she continued. “It’s tiring. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating.

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