Senior Staff Writer Grace Fitzgerald-Diaz sat down with the leaders and members of Barnard’s Reproductive Justice Collective to talk about their current initiatives, abortion rights issues on-campus, and their work with the city.

On April 23, Barnard’s Reproductive Justice Collective (RJC) gained campus-wide attention after anti-choice protesters showed up to block the messages “Abortion Pills on Campus Now” and “Abortion Pill = Health and Freedom” that RJC projected onto Low Library. The messages were a part of their initiative to get Barnard and Columbia to provide access to medication abortions, often known as the abortion pill, at on-campus healthcare clinics. Bwog sat down with RJC to learn about the initiatives they are pursuing and the challenges of organizing for reproductive justice at Columbia and beyond. 

RJC was created in February 2020 at Barnard. Prior to its founding, its leaders had already been involved in reproductive justice work, with one of them previously advocating for access to medication abortions on campus. The coalition came together after its leaders realized an intersectional space focused on reproductive health was missing from campus. At the group’s beginning, one of its founders noted that while “the values were all there [to start], the projects were not.” However, the collective quickly found those projects. Bringing the abortion pill to on-campus healthcare clinics became one of RJC’s main three initiatives and, coming into the 2021–2022 school year, they said it was “the thing we knew we wanted to do this year.”

In addition to the medication abortion initiative, RJC has two other working groups. One is working on improving the state of queer and trans healthcare on Columbia and Barnard’s campuses. The RJC has an active anonymous survey for queer and trans students on campus, aimed at collecting their experiences with Columbia and Barnard healthcare providers. According to the RJC, many people have shared negative experiences, including instances of misgendering, slut-shaming during STI testing, and a general lack of information on gender-affirming care. The goal is to extract the overall results from this survey to show the administration that the lack of resources for and the bias within on-campus queer and trans healthcare cannot be ignored. 

The third working group is focused on community advocacy. This covers a range of projects, including partnering with New York City for Abortion Rights, enhancing political education efforts, increasing awareness of abortion bans, and raising money for abortion funds. Most recently, RJC raised nearly 600 dollars for Buckle Bunnies, which helps to provide funding for abortions in Texas—a state with some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws. This working group is also involved in promoting action within the wider New York City community. Thanks to their efforts, over 30 Barnard and Columbia students have received training to be abortion doulas this year, a service meant to offer physical, mental, and emotional support before, during, and after an abortion. These volunteers will provide services to campus and to the wider Upper Manhattan community.

RJC’s leaders noted that they have, for the most part, received an overwhelmingly positive response to their work on campus. They keep hearing from their fellow students that it “didn’t feel like there was already a space for this.” In response to their medication abortion initiative, they noted receiving incredulous responses like “Wait, [we] don’t [have that] already?” or, “Oh, they could do that?” According to RJC, students had often assumed that there was some legitimate reason that Columbia and Barnard weren’t already providing abortion pills, and upon finding out that wasn’t the case, they were shocked. 

Though the bulk of the campus response to RJC’s work has been positive, there has also been a vocal minority opposing them. When RJC projected messages onto Low Library, it was at the end of a week of raising funds and awareness for medication abortions on-campus; the whole week, RJC had received a nearly universally positive response from students. Yet when they projected messages onto Low Library, a group of anti-choice students showed up to block the projector. RJC leaders expressed that although they had anticipated a negative online response to the projection, they did not expect that anti-choicers would actually show up. They had assumed that if they did, they would protest vocally to the side of the demonstration, rather than block the projector itself.

The events of that evening drew significant attention, highlighting some of the safety issues that are ubiquitous within reproductive justice organizing. Instagram posts about RJC’s illumination of Low Library drew negative response from groups and individuals unaffiliated with Columbia and Barnard. When asked how these anti-abortion groups were even able to find them, RJC leaders explained that many anti-abortion groups have Slack channels and other shared servers where they share various posts they find about abortion. The members of these groups, an RJC leader explained, typically use burner accounts to navigate to the pro-abortion posts shared in these channels. Once they’ve found them, they not only comment on but try to figure out who the leaders behind the initiatives are.

As a result, all of RJC’s leaders, and many of its members, have faced online harassment. One of the leaders was sent photos of their own relatives from a burner account and was told that the person behind the account “knew where [their family members] were.” This has forced RJC to adjust how they’re working toward their goals. According to the leaders, though this online harassment has been a challenge, it has also made them realize how much power they have—the attention they’ve received from anti-choicers for their medication abortion initiative has been immense. As a result, they’ve removed any images on their website and social media accounts that show students’ faces, and they encourage their members to go by aliases, or only their first names, in their public and internal channels. 

RJC, like other individuals and groups advocating for reproductive justice, is working in a climate where, as RJC’s leaders described, “[we have] been losing for several years.” RJC’s leaders told Bwog how organizations they work with have seen increases in Witness for Life marches, clinic harassments and invasions, fake abortion clinics known as Crisis Pregnancy Centers, and anti-choicers collaborating with cops in recent years. Between the response to their projection and the restriction of abortion by the Supreme Court, RJC leaders said it has shocked them how fundamental the issue of abortion has been to Republican organizing for decades, and just how much money has gone into it. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade as of June 24, which has led to an immediate ban on abortions in many states and will lead to heavy restrictions or total bans in many more, activists anticipate that those taking an anti-choice stance will only continue to be emboldened. They are near certain that this decision will result in an increase in violent resistance to people’s access to abortion and other reproductive health services—which will disproportionately impact people who are low-income, queer, trans, and BIPOC.

The SCOTUS decision has also led to a greater sense of urgency in RJC’s own work, particularly regarding their community engagement initiatives. “There are real concrete steps New York can take to be a destination abortion state,” a leader remarked. RJC is lobbying for the passage of two bills in New York State: State Bill S8778 and Assembly Bill A8743. The primary focus of State Bill S8778 would be to help make New York a safe haven for abortions. If passed, the bill would prohibit law enforcement from cooperating with out-of-state investigations into legal abortions conducted in New York state. Assembly Bill A8743 would require the SUNY system to offer medication abortions at all on-campus student health services. If passed, A8743 would also create a fund to help finance the implementation of these services. Though the most recent legislative session closed in June, RJC plans to lobby throughout the year to get the bills ratified, with hopes that they will be able to see them passed in the next session. 

There are concrete steps that New York state and Columbia University can take to protect abortion rights. This is a core tenet of the RJC: Columbia, Barnard, and the state at large can take simple steps to ensure that everyone has access to safe abortions, an essential part of comprehensive healthcare.

RJC partners with Plan C, Advocates for Youth, and New York City for Abortion. They have provided support for organizations working to provide access to abortions in Texas and Tennessee, states that have drastically restricted abortions. RJC’s petition supporting medication abortions being brought to on-campus healthcare facilities can be found here, and their survey on the state of queer and trans healthcare on the University campus can be found here

Because of the potential safety implications, Bwog is not publishing the names of any of RJC’s leaders or members, and has kept these identities known to as few people as possible within Bwog.

Low Library via Bwog Archives