As Roe falls, Rice grapples with diminishing abortion access
Illustrated by Katherine Chui
Editor’s note: This story contains explicit descriptions of abortion. A student interviewed was given the option of remaining anonymous in the interest of keeping their experiences private. The anonymous student was given a false name, which has been marked with an asterix on first mention.
It had been just hours since the doctor confirmed her unwanted pregnancy. Bethany* had taken a negative pregnancy test just the week before, but she had missed a period and was still not feeling herself. A few days into the initial remote weeks of the spring 2022 semester, Bethany, now a senior, knew she wanted an abortion.
Just seven months earlier, Texas Governor Greg Abbott had signed a bill banning abortions after the detection of an embryonic heartbeat, which the Cleveland Clinic says generally occurs six weeks after gestation and two weeks after the first missed period. Commonly referred to as the “heartbeat bill,” the law was a precursor to Texas’ now near-total ban on abortions.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision ensuring a constitutional right to abortion, states across the country have taken steps to restrict abortion access. Now, almost 60 percent of reproductive aged women live in states hostile to abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights group.
“[The legalization of abortion] had a direct and signficant impacts on birth rates,” Diana Strassmann, a professor at Rice’s Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, said. “It particularly impacted young women and Black women and it also had very powerful effects on women’s social and economic lives … I think that the consequences of abortion prohibitions are going to be far more devastating than would otherwise be the case.”
National education data show that college students — whose age group has the highest rate of unintended pregnancies — are ten times less likely to complete their degree in five years if they have children. Approximately one-quarter of the total college population had children as of 2012, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Members of Rice for Life, an anti-abortion club on campus, celebrated the overturning of Roe.
“When we actually saw the overturning [of Roe], we were actually quite pleased with it,” Harmony Moore, the club’s incoming vice president, said. “We’re glad that this decision is being turned back to the state legislatures so that the constituents can advocate for themselves.”
Gabby Franklin, the president of the Student Association, released a statement a few days after the Court’s decision saying the SA was “deeply appalled and distressed.”
“Frankly, everything is falling apart,” Franklin, a Brown College junior, later told the Thresher. “We needed to do something, we needed to say something, we needed to make it clear that we support that anyone with a uterus has a right to choose.”
‘It happens to you’
After leaving her doctor’s office, Bethany said she sat in her car and panicked. She said she did not think she would face an unwanted pregnancy.
“I wish I would have known that this can happen to anyone,” Bethany said. “It’s not just something that happens to people, it happens to you.”
Bethany decided to reach out to a family friend who was a gynecologist.
“She’s a trusted adult who would be able to help me out here,” Bethany said. “I text her, and then she calls me and she’s like, ‘Have you told your parents yet? You’re going to have to tell them.’”
Bethany did not have a close relationship with her parents, she said. She was scared of how they may react.
“I get on my knees on the floor, right next to where she’s sitting, and I’m like, ‘Mom, I really need a hug, I really need some support,’” Bethany said. “I tell her a couple times [that] I’m pregnant, and she doesn’t hear me … Then I say it again, and she switches into disgust, disbelief, which I expected.”
The next step, Bethany’s mom decided, was to tell her dad.
“Now I have to confirm that I’ve been like sexually active, but I also have to say I’m pregnant,” Bethany said. “[But] he’s really nice about it, understanding. He’s not freaked out at all. He’s like, ‘We’re going to help you, we love you no matter what.’”
Making the decision
Bethany, a Houston resident, knew her nearest option was Planned Parenthood. But if an ultrasound revealed that her embryo had developed beyond Texas’ limit, then Bethany would have lost the money she paid for the appointment.
A second option was to leave the state. At the time, Bethany said she considered driving to Arkansas, whose restrictions on abortion were focused later in pregnancy. Now, Arkansas, like Texas, has a near-total ban on abortions.
Medical abortion, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a procedure that uses medicine to end a pregnancy,” was another possibility. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized a cocktail of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol for the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, and experts say their usage may increase in states with post-Roe abortion bans.
Elise Johnson, a clinical counselor at the Rice Counseling Center, said that unwanted pregnancies are emotionally distressing.
“Generally speaking, I think that there can be a lot of panic, a lot of ‘What do I do now?’” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of, ‘What does this mean for my future?’ I think there’s an isolating, alone feeling in this. In those kinds of moments, it can drop you into a place where there’s a lot of fear.”
Choosing to terminate a pregnancy is generally emotionally taxing, Johnson added.
“It’s a decision many women don't make lightly, but I think it's also a decision women feel like they need to make out of necessity,” she said. “Whether it's safe or not, and women's lives have become more in danger, I think women will still be trying to make this decision.”
Moore highlighted adoption as an alternative to abortion.
“There are many, many families who are ready and willing and looking for children to adopt and who would give them a loving home as well,” Moore, a Duncan College junior, said. “Even here in our city in Houston, there are several centers available [to] help pregnant women in difficult situations.”
Brian Riedel, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, said that miscarriage treatment often falls under the umbrella of abortion care. Other types of emergencies may require abortions, including ectopic pregnancies, which are life-threatening and result in an inviable fetus.
The unknown intricacies of Texas’ post-Roe ban on abortion has led to delayed emergency care, the Texas Tribune reported.
Strassmann told the Thresher that she has had an abortion to avoid delivering a second stillborn child.
“I myself have had an abortion, which was not an easy decision,” Strassmann said. “I had a child that died, a stillborn, because of a medical condition, and when I had a subsequent accidental pregnancy it was clear that the same condition had a high likelihood of affecting this second pregnancy. I didn’t want to have another stillborn child so I chose to terminate … it was great not to have to deal with all the legal rigmarole and barriers that are being brought up [now].”
After deliberating with her parents, Bethany decided to fly to another state where she could legally undergo a surgical abortion. She declined to specify the state.
“The worst part was waiting for something to do, because with something like this, you just want to take care of it right away and you just want to get rid of it and get it over with and you can’t,” Bethany said. “You’re just thinking about it all of the time, there’s nothing else to think about. You’ve got this thing inside of you and there’s nothing you can do to get it out and you just have to wait and you just have to hope and you have to just know everything’s going to be okay, but you don’t really know because there’s no resolution yet.”
Bethany landed the night before her surgery and went to a hotel. Classes were remote for a few weeks due to a COVID-19 surge, so Bethany could join from anywhere.
“My original idea was to have [the abortion] before my classes, but then my mom was like, ‘No, you will just have had an abortion, you’ll want to hang out for the rest of the day, not class,’” Bethany said. “So I went to my two classes that morning, and then I went to the clinic to get my abortion.”
Since she was still early in the first trimester, Bethany had a manual vacuum aspiration instead of the more conventional dilation and sharp curettage, she said. In a manual vacuum aspiration, a doctor inserts a syringe into the uterus to remove the pregnancy tissue with suction.
Many patients receive a local anesthetic, but the short procedure may still hurt.
“I wish people knew how painful it was,” Bethany said. “I didn’t want to scare anybody by saying that … obviously pain isn’t going to be the one thing that dissuades you from getting an abortion, but it wasn’t comfortable at all. It was bloody and painful and I was screaming.” Her mother, who waited outside the room, could hear Bethany’s screams, she added.
Rice’s ‘placeholder’ response
Four days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, outgoing President David Leebron and incoming President Reginald DesRoches released a two-paragraph statement reiterating their commitment to gender equality.
“We remain committed to supporting the health needs of women at Rice, and we are working to determine the ways in which the university can appropriately provide support in this changed environment,” Leebron and DesRoches wrote.
Lora Wildenthal, affiliated faculty for SWGS, said she considered Rice’s statement to be a placeholder for future communications.
“I don’t expect Rice to take a strong abortion rights position, nor is it precisely the mission of a university to do so,” Wildenthal said. “But I think it is important in a non-profit organization, that is also a community … to acknowledge what is happening and acknowledge how profoundly upsetting it is.”
Moving forward, Abigail Robert, the events coordinator for Rice for Life, called for Critical Thinking in Sexuality — a course required for all first-year students — to include more information about abstinence, the potential for pregnancy and options besides abortion.
“I think that CTIS needs to stress the implications of intimacy, and being transparent about risks, such as pregnancy being a real and possible outcome,” Robert, a Jones College sophomore, said. “I think that CTIS can encourage students to consider all their options … such as abstinence, non-abortifacient contraceptives, [adoption], and pregnancy health care centers.”
In a statement to the Thresher, Jessica McKelvey, the director of Student Health Services, said that her office has rarely handled abortion-related requests.
“If a student asked SHS for assistance after a positive pregnancy test, SHS provided counseling on all available options,” McKelvey wrote. “Only in extremely rare instances have students come to SHS seeking support in obtaining abortions. When SHS has been consulted in such a case, students have been referred to Planned Parenthood.”
McKelvey said SHS is unsure if they can continue referring students to abortion services and is awaiting guidance from the Office of the General Counsel.
Cathryn Councill, the director of the Sexual Assault Free Environment Office, said they will continue to support survivors of violence.
“SAFE has always assisted students with obtaining medical care, forensic exams, and Plan B, if they experienced intimate partner violence and/or sexual assault and are concerned about pregnancy as a result of the violence,” Councill said. “We will continue to offer these options until told otherwise. Staff, like the rest of the community, have a lot to understand and discuss so that we can see how we can best help students as this unprecedented ruling continues to unfold.”
A representative from the Houston Area Women’s Center, a local clinic focused on victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or sex trafficking, said removing access to abortion will damage victim services.
“As advocates, we are concerned about the elimination of abortion care, which is a health care option for all survivors of domestic and sexual violence,” Chau Nguyen, HAWC’s chief public strategies officer, said. “This will greatly diminish safety and exacerbate risk for any survivor.”
Rice can continue to make accommodations under Title IX for students seeking abortions, according to deputy Title IX coordinator Allison Vogt.
“Title IX requires that universities which receive federal monies allow students to take a leave of absence for [medical abortions or out-of-state surgical abortions] and without consequence,” Vogt, an associate dean of students, said.
Undergraduate students would request a leave of absence for physical medical reasons, and graduate students would also consult with their department and advisors, Vogt added.
Doug Miller, Rice’s director of news and media relations, said Rice does not maintain data on the number of students requesting accomodations due to an abortion.
Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman declined to comment on Rice’s plans regarding abortion rights.
“We are still working through what this decision will mean for members of our community, including students,” Gorman said. “Do know that we care deeply about the reproductive health and wellbeing of all persons at Rice, and will work to continue to support that in the time ahead.”
Robert said that Rice should focus on fostering an inclusive environment by providing resources and accommodations for pregnant and parenting students.
“Attention must be given to both preventing unwanted pregnancies by other means than abortion and also towards women who are pregnant and desire to continue their education,” Robert wrote in an email to the Thresher. “We need to normalize true diversity — that includes pregnant women going to school … Rice should provide financial resources, well-being resources, and accommodations. She should not feel the need to support her child alone, especially given how hard it is to be a student at Rice. Rice as a culture needs to embrace pregnant women and help them in their journey by walking alongside them.”
Bethany has not yet told her younger sister about her abortion, she said. She said she was too “embarrassed,” which she attributed to societal stigma.
“We are really close, I think she’d consider me her best friend … and basically, I had to lie to her,” Bethany said. “I plan on talking to her one day, but I don’t want her to look at me different. She won’t, I know she won’t. We have similar beliefs, but I don’t want her to look at me different, that’s the fear … ‘Had an abortion,’ that label attached to me in her eyes forever, I think is what I was trying to avoid.”
As her younger sister graduates high school and goes to college, Bethany said she is worried about her reproductive options.
“I’m scared for her too, I mean, she’s going to go to [a different] college … and we may not have the money to send her out of state,” Bethany said. “I’m really scared for her because what if the same thing happens to her and she has to travel really far and doesn’t have the resources?”
Cost of care
At Rice, the administration has a history of providing emergency funds, according to Wildenthal. Many colleges have Magister’s Funds for smaller costs, the university has an Access and Opportunity Portal to provide non-emergency funding, and the dean of undergraduates has funds for emergencies.
Poor people are going to face more difficulties seeking abortions than rich people, accoring to Strassman, reversing many of Roe’s initial effects.
“What's really clear is that it's wealthy women who are able to travel outside of state to get abortions and healthcare or who know how to navigate the system to get resources that can help them,” Strassman said. “It's heartbreaking to think of the level of pain that is going to ensue.”
Wildenthal said helping students finance their reproductive healthcare should be a high priority for Rice.
“While these costs are quite high for someone who isn’t connected to an institution that can help them, the cost of flying to another state and getting a couple nights at a hotel is actually not a high cost … for the university as an institution,” Wildenthal said. “This is definitely an amount of money that is relatively straightforward to provide to students that they can confirm are in need.”
‘1,000 times more afraid’
When Bethany first heard that the Supreme Court overturned Roe, she said she feared for herself, but later turned her attention to other people.
“I’m scared not for me so much anymore, because I know that I can obtain pills, that I can fly out of state at literally a moment’s notice,” she said. “[Today] it’s more fear for other women than it was back when it was [initially] overturned, [when] it was just fear for me.”
As the dust settled, Bethany said she realized her perspective on her own abortion had changed.
“[Initially], I couldn’t say the word [‘abortion’] so I just called it the ‘procedure’ for the longest time,” Bethany said. “I think it was the overturning of Roe v Wade where I actually started calling it [an abortion].”
Her relationship with her parents has not changed. Bethany said that her family accepted and then quickly moved on from her abortion. Bethany’s mother was with her the day Roe was overturned and said nothing.
“My mom came to visit me the day that Roe v. Wade got overturned, and she didn’t say a word about it, even fully knowing that I’ve had one and would be affected by this,” Bethany said. “I wish she had taken me aside and said something and made sure I was okay, kind of reaffirm that I would be okay, that she would still love me no matter what, but that’s not so much what happened.”
Her relationship with sex has changed, though, regardless of contraceptive methods, Bethany said.
“[My abortion] has made me 1,000 times more afraid of having sex than I was before,” she said. “Now it’s always a worry, it’s always a what if, what if, what if. Birth control fails, and it has before and it will again.”
It has now been more than seven months since Bethany’s abortion, since she learned she was pregnant, flew to another state, attended her classes and got her abortion, all in just a few days. In those seven months, discussions of abortion made her tense, Bethany said, while the world debated the initial leaked draft opinion overturning Roe and the later official opinion.
As organizations fundraised, voter drives launched and political fights heated up, to Bethany, it remained personal.
“At the end of the day, I am going to be the person who carries the pregnancy, that is going to be responsible for it,” she said. “[He] could have dipped at any time … he had no repercussions from this the same way that I did. I had to open my legs and have this thing inside of me, and a vacuum or whatever it was and needles and I had to go through the entire thing on my own. I had the tax on my body, not him at all. That was hard. It was just because I was mad at him, it was unfair. I was like, ‘I can’t believe we did this together and now I have to deal with it for the rest of my life.’ It’s something that I always have to carry.”
Hajeera Naveed and Murtaza Kazmi contributed additional reporting for this story.
[8/24/2022 at 8:34 a.m.] This article was updated to remove a detail that risked anonymity of a source.
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