On Feb. 9, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and College Feminists organized a protest in favor of increased resources for abortion access on campus. The demands of this protest included installing an OB/GYN trained in gender-inclusive care in UHS, increasing access to emergency contraceptives, and facilitating an overall painless and confidential process of abortion on campus (the complete list of demands can be found on SDS’ Instagram). Protest organizers and SA leaders met with administration including UHS director Dr. Manchester in weeks following the protest. Campus Times followed up with organizers in SDS and College Feminists, as well as SA President Adrija Bhattacharjee, to discuss steps taken in the wake of the protest, their work with University administration to achieve their demands, and reflections on the process of organizing.

On Wednesday, March 22, I spoke to College Feminists co-presidents, sophomore Navya Soogoor (she/her) and senior Sarah Unowsky (she/her).

How do you feel about the protest? Was the student response what you hoped for?

Soogoor: The protest went really well, impressed with the student turn out. Felt very heard. People showed up to the protest and [kind of] left it be.

What was the response like after the protest? How would you characterize it?

Soogoor: It’s easy to forget about issues like this […] The apathy can be frustrating for us. The people we need to respond are the administration.

Unowsky: In a perfect world all demands would be met […] Funding is a primary barrier that we’re facing. In order to offer free plan B that’s a cost that UHS would have to bear. That might require them to raise the mandatory health fee …What I think really might happen in the near future is that they will start offering ella which is plan B that works for people over a certain weight.

What are your goals going forward? Do you feel optimistic that your effort will amount to some progress?

Soogoor: I will always be optimistic. We can get something as long as we continue to push. ella and vending machines for emergency contraceptives are definitely doable. The only way to set that precedent is if we stay optimistic.

The vending machines Soogoor mentions would dispense emergency contraceptives to students without the need to interact with a pharmacist or healthcare provider. The effort to install such vending machines has been undertaken at other universities as well.

From what I understand you’ve spoken to Dr. Manchester, the director of UHS, as well as other administrators. What have your experiences with them been like?

Unowsky: We spoke to Dr. Manchester and Dean Burns last week. It’s just gonna be a lot of talking until we forget about it.

Soogoor: Manchester was supportive but there is definitely a pull between his job and what he actually wants to do. Dean Burns said that Dr. Manchester is putting his job and reputation on the line by pushing for certain things. There’s no judgment there, but in the meeting that was one of the things that we got. Manchester, who is our biggest supporter, is afraid of losing his reputation.

What has your experience been like working with other student groups to organize the protest? Do you find your way of coalition building to be a useful tactic for organizing on campus?

Unowsky: SDS recognized this issue and reached out to us last semester. The good thing about coalition building is that you never know the connections that you have. When two student groups come together and pose a united front […] It’s not just an issue for the feminists and leftists. It’s an issue that affects the entire student body.

Soogoor: Working with another student gave the movement more power. We had two really strong eboards working together which is why this was possible in the first place.

On March 24, I spoke to outgoing SA President and junior Adrija Bhattacharjee (she/her) and Vice-President and junior Sybilla Moore (she/they).

What do you think of the student response following the protest? Have things changed in the past month?

Bhattacharjee: In general, even before the protest, I don’t think there was a huge portion of students on this campus that are against what the students are protesting for. There was a good turnout to the protest, even through the rain and the cold. There seemed to be a lot of support, like people cheering as we walked past.

In general, after the conversations we’ve had the frustration is not necessarily with the students, more so with the administration and how they responded to concerns. And this might be a hot take, but I don’t think admin is against it.

I think they’re more concerned in terms of funding and resources, and just the politics in the bureaucracy.

Moore: I would add that I think that there’s some issues that seem to have more explicit pushback from either students or administration, but like Adrija was saying, there’s more implicit acceptance.

How has it been like working with the administration on this issue? What’s come out of meeting with them and how likely do you think it is that such a thing as an emergency contraceptive vending machine will be implemented?

Bhattacharjee: We met with Ralph Manchester and Amy MacDonald the day after they met with the protest leads. With the vending machine, I think there was positive affirmation from Manchester, who said that is definitely something that they’re trying to work on. I would hope that comes into fruition, hopefully next year.

As for other things, when we brought up having an OB/GYN present on the River campus […] given our relationship with URMC, it’s not really feasible to have an OB/GYN on campus […] There have actually been conversations where they actually had an OB/GYN that they vetted in the process but determining the salary and how that would work out, it ended up falling through.

Amy mentioned that she really wants us as students to just continue pushing for it from our end, making sure that student well-being is actually implemented in the strategic plan because it historically has not been.

Moore: The vending machine is actively being considered, like they’re trying to think of the placement of it […] I think there’s different understandings of what students want. I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect with a clear plan forward. Like with all the things SDS is saying with students’ wants, there’s some things that are clearly in action and others that don’t fully have responses yet.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the long term, because like a lot of issues in this school, they can be as far in the works as you think they are but if students aren’t on [administration] about it, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we actually really did consider it. We put a lot of thought, a lot of research…’ and then it never happened.

I know they’re looking at [gender-inclusive language] around things […] but they also mention the difficulties with short-staffing and trying to pull people for training is a hard balance currently.

What do you think, as student government leaders, was effective about SDS and College Feminists’ strategy of coalition building? What can be learned for the future?

Bhattacharjee: As SA President, I feel like SA always benefits when students do things on the ground and initially do things on their own. It’s never an obligation for them to follow up with us and I appreciate that these students did […] I think having [a protest] with students at it and then having me as leverage. You already have students on the ground that are thinking this — I’m just relaying new information and I think it helps.

I don’t think I would’ve changed anything about it. And I’m glad that Dean Burns, Ralph, and Amy met with the protesters too.

Moore: I think it can be frustrating for students at times because of how SA operates partially as an advocacy body and partially as a listening and amplifying [body], because by trying to come across more neutral […] I really appreciate that students did organize so that did give us a little bit more leverage to push for things.

Bhattacharjee: I think there’s mutual dissatisfaction with the mechanisms […] Like during my first year with Anti-Asian Hate, I would always wonder, ‘Why isn’t SA doing much?’ But being in this role now and recognizing that the students feel like there’s an extra burden of them having to carry things. I think it’s way more effective for students on the ground, like they hold way more power, inevitably more than we do… The role is always helpful when I meet with admin but it’s probably not the most helpful to students that are organizing things.

Lastly, on March 25, I spoke to Wilson Peng (he/him) and Somes Schwinghammer (he/him), SDS members who worked with College Feminists to organize the abortion access protest.

What can you say about your experience working with other student organizations, working to organize the protest, and the importance of coalition building?

Schwinghammer: Over time, as society begins to accept certain special interest groups, these [groups] become inherently less radical and less revolutionary… Over time, you have these groups which are founded on these revolutionary ideals and the society that we live in let in the portions that they like. You have all these different groups that affect marginalized and systematically oppressed groups. However, as our society has let in the bare minimum to remove the radicalness, they decrease in action […] From the side of building a coalition, we [in SDS] are committed to being as radical as we can be, and so that means bringing in groups that maybe don’t share all of our values such as College Feminists […] We are now bringing them back into political action with the hope that we are building a coalition where if they want to hold another event similar to this or if there’s another thing that they see that we should be pushing for, we can assist them with that. We are here to act as a radical front for these groups.

Peng: There’s a good justice in Texas right now who was a Trump appointee from his last term who is currently waiting to rule on the legality of mifepristone. This is one of the reasons we decided to advocate for abortion on campus in the first place. Because putting these systems in place makes it not only easier for students to access these resources right now, but in the near future we anticipate [conservatives] really trying to grab onto this and just yank it away from everyone. But we also see, in the near future like minded people coming back and advocating for change again and regaining that.

It doesn’t make sense not to have these services on campus, especially since it’s a relatively low cost and the training is pretty simple and straightforward with the only real opposition we got was the education time.

Schwinghammer: Basically, what happened is originally, we met with Dr. Manchester before the rally to gather information, and gathering what his position on it was at the time, he was open to it but relatively opposed because he believed that – there’s a thing called REMS certification that you need to be able to prescribe this medication, and according to [guidelines] you needed an ultrasound to do any sort of medical abortion. What we’ve since figured out is that REMS certification for these specific drugs is easy. To quote a doctor from URMC, ‘It’s basically just sending in some papers.’ And the other barrier, the ultrasound […] It turns out that’s a URMC specific ruling.

Peng: It’s not a state-specific ruling, it’s not a Rochester-specific ruling[…]

Schwinghammer: And the national abortion federation doesn’t recommend it.

What do you guys think about everything that’s emerged post-protest in meeting with administrators, working on establishing the emergency contraceptive vending machine? How has the progress towards these goals been going?

Schwinghammer: Due to the bureaucracy, and ’specially the bloated bureaucracy on college campuses, once you get into it, it is going to be very slow and really annoying […] It took us nearly a month to set up a meeting with [administration] because they kept sending us back meeting times that did not work for any of us, at like 10:30 on a Thursday morning when no one’s available.

Well, with regards to emergency contraception, we ask for both ella and plan B to be provided free of cost either through a vending machine or through a provider, or through both.

Peng: We brought up the possibility of distributing these medications for emergency contraception through a vending machine during our first meeting with Dr. Manchester, he’d look into it […] They’re considering it, but they haven’t included us in any sort of discussion apart from a meeting on the 15th.

What has it been like working with SA in this process?

Schwinghammer: Working with SA was good, we’ve had contacts and meetings with individuals within student government a few times throughout the process. Basically, in my opinion, SA is kind of useless. They are [that] controlled opposition of the administration. They are basically set there with a ton of red tape. They can meet more with Mangelsdorf and whoever, but the ones who actually make the decisions are the board of trustees.

Peng: SA is a neutered version of what it could actually be. SA has the power to enact minimal change on campus, but without the power of advocacy groups such as SDS and College Feminists behind SA policy, or even trying to introduce new policy to SA or administrators.

SDS summarized their meeting with Dr. Manchester in an Instagram post on March 31.

Organizers in SDS and College Feminists are intent on continuing to pursue their demands in the future. Motivated in pursuit of improving quality of life on campus and working to oppose a growing trend of abortion restriction across the nation, SDS and College Feminists plan to continue pushing for an on-campus OB/GYN and increased access to emergency contraceptives. As they noted, however, obstacles lie in their work with university and URMC administrators as well as perceived apathy in the student body. While these student organizers are operating within the bubble of a college campus, their work in this microcosm is reflective of the state of reproductive health in the macrocosm of the United States.

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