When Jakeya Johnson needed to complete a research project for a public policy course at Bowie State University, her focus immediately turned to the school. But it wasn’t academics that were on Johnson’s mind; the graduate student wanted to explore which reproductive care resources were offered on the campus.
What she discovered is that students could get pregnancy testing, some testing for sexually transmitted infections, and annual gynecological exams. But that was about it. For anything else, students were referred to an off-campus clinic in Landover run by Prince George’s County — an hour-and-forty-minute trip by public transportation.
Among the most notable absences from Bowie State’s on-campus offerings is emergency contraception, often called the morning-after pill and sold under the brand name Plan B, which needs to be taken as soon as possible after sex to work successfully.
“So I’m just thinking to myself, what can be accomplished in a semester?” Johnson said, “I thought we could at least get emergency contraception on campus.” Emergency contraception, and other over-the-counter medication, can be sold through vending machines — anonymously — as a result of a law approved in the 2021 legislative session.
So, she drew up a proposal and presented it to the Director of Bowie State University Health Center.
“She basically told me, ‘This is a great idea, but I can’t commit any time or resources right now, so if you can make it happen without me, then go for it,’” Johnson said.
With this roadblock, the project began to evolve into work that will now likely have an impact statewide.
Johnson began looking to see what abortion care looked like at other colleges and universities around the state and discovered Bowie State was not alone in its incomplete resources.
“It was very clear that access to reproductive health was inconsistent across the state, which is unacceptable,” she said.
She contacted Sen. Ariana Kelly (who was, at the time, serving in the House of Delegates), a Montgomery County Democrat, and pitched the idea as legislation.
And in February, she sat beside Kelly to give opening testimony for the House version of the bill that was born out of her project. Last week, both the House and Senate had approved versions of the bill.
The Public Senior Higher Education Reproductive Health Service Plans Requirements bill would require public colleges and universities in the state to, in consultation with students, develop and implement a comprehensive plan for reproductive health services provided at the school, or a plan for where students can be referred for these services.
The bill requires 24-hour access to emergency contraception on all campuses, including the University of Baltimore. But that school is excused from the other requirements as it does not have on-campus housing. The bill does not apply to community colleges.
The new law could make it easier to access what Erin Case with the Baltimore Abortion Fund said was the biggest request from students.
“The most frequent way we’re supporting college students with reproductive health care is through our emergency contraceptive kit program,” Case said.
She said they mail the emergency contraceptive kits — which contain a packet of Plan B, four condoms and two pregnancy tests — to people all around the state.
“We get a large number of orders from college campuses,” Case says.
The resources offered by Maryland’s public colleges and universities vary a great deal depending on the school. Most list some basic information about the services offered on their websites, but do not offer a full scope of everything that may be needed.
The University of Maryland, College Park offers consultations on birth control and sexual health for free. Emergency contraception, safe sex materials and referrals for abortion care, adoption, and prenatal care are also available free of charge.
Other resources like hormone replacement therapy, pre- and post-exposure prophylactic drugs for treating HIV, sexually-transmitted infection testing, and a variety of prescription birth control options, are available for an expense.
Emergency contraception is also available free of charge as a direct result of an action by students. In 2021, the student government at the university pledged $16,000 to the program. An additional $4,000 since has been allocated, and 5,500 units of Plan B have been distributed.
But other universities — particularly those located in more remote areas of the state — are not so connected to resources.
Frostburg State University did not respond to The Baltimore Banner’s request for comment, but the institution’s website indicates “low-to-no cost reproductive health services” including emergency contraception and prescription birth control are offered certain days in partnership with the Garrett County Health Department. Abortion care is not specified on the website.
Robyn Elliott, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, grew up in Western Maryland, near Frostburg State University. Students who need abortion care that is not offered on campus can expect to travel over 100 miles round-trip if they want to remain in the state for care.
“If you’re a student at Frostburg — even if you have transportation — and you need to go off campus for abortion services … the closest provider is in Hagerstown,” she said, roughly 75 miles east of campus.
More commonly, Elliott says, people in that part of the state will travel to Pennsylvania for the care they need.
“So think about doing that at any time in your life; that’s a pretty steep barrier to try to sort of get to those places. But then add in that you’re in that [age] range of probably 18 to 25, may or may not have transportation, may or may not have insurance coverage you’re comfortable in using,” she says
The situation is similar on the Eastern Shore.
According to Lindsey Parker, the director of Salisbury University Student Health Services, the school “offers several different types of contraception to students, including oral contraceptives, injectable contraceptives, vaginal rings and patches, as well as emergency contraception including Plan B and Ella,” she said in a statement. “Services are available for all students, with or without insurance, for a nominal cost. Student Health Services also offers STI testing and free condoms.”
Salisbury’s division of student health services says the office works closely with the Wicomico County Health Department and local gynecological care providers when referrals are needed for more invasive contraceptive options.
Despite Maryland’s comparatively expansive abortion protections and services, Salisbury’s location on the Eastern Shore adds a layer of complication in the event a student needs an abortion.
According to the university, the closest Planned Parenthood office that provides medication for abortion is located in Easton, roughly 50 miles from Salisbury’s campus. But if procedural abortion care is needed, a student’s best bet may be going out of state. Planned Parenthood in Dover, Delaware is located 57 miles away, compared with the second-closest location in Annapolis, 90 miles away.
The university does not provide transportation or funding to support transportation.
During legislative debate, Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to add requirements warning students about the negative emotional impact of abortion, requiring schools to develop plans for pregnant or parenting students, and allowing the person paying tuition to opt out of any fees for these programs.
The original version of the bill required schools to coordinate referrals for transportation to services unavailable on campus. Some lawmakers, though, found that language confusing, so the provision was struck, Kelly explained. Over the interim, she and others involved with the bill will be working with the Baltimore Abortion Fund to coordinate these referrals.
The D.C. Abortion Fund says they have never had to turn a caller away. But, “economic inequality and increased cost of living, systemic barriers to abortion care, abortion stigma, and lack of public knowledge about abortion funds” still have the potential to prevent young people from accessing abortion care.”
“From our perspective, area students are included in the swaths of abortion seekers today who need, more than anything, funding for their abortion care,” the group said.
When the final version of the bill lands on Gov. Wes Moore’s desk, he has promised to sign it.
Johnson says she is disappointed the House version of the bill removed the transportation provisions, but she remains excited about the bill’s success and what it means for the future.
“It feels like a win, and it creates space for more progressive legislation in the future for those who may need it,” she said.