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New abortion laws create confusion for some college healthcare programs

abortion college campuses
Posted at 1:54 PM, Aug 09, 2022

NORTH CAROLINA — Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some universities are re-evaluating their student healthcare programs. Public health workers are worried about what they can legally say and do for students now.

Across the United States, there are about 5,300 colleges and universities. That includes everything from beauty schools to Ivy League universities. These campuses are filled with thousands of students getting a glimpse of adulthood for the first time.

"First time away from home and they are having to navigate very complex systems on their own for the first time," said Dr. John Vaughn, the director of student health at Duke University. "There is a term that we use a lot, emerging adulthood, and that kind of captures this age group of 18 to 24-year-old students."

Vaughn says that's exactly why he got into his field.

"At a university, certainly at Duke but most universities, it's an opportunity to kind of work at the crossroads of healthcare and higher education," Vaughn said.

Health-related conversations are far from easy for anyone, but for these students, the situation is even more unique.

"Students have a very unique set of needs that don't fit in the traditional medical model and that's why we're here," Vaughn said. "A lot of times at orientation, moms are like, 'OK, where is the form I sign to get access to my student's records for the whole four years they are here at Duke?' And we have to explain to mom that form does not exist."

In the wake of the overturn of Roe v Wade, college campuses are having to navigate the role they play in conversations with students about their reproductive health care options. In some states, it's unclear whether someone can be prosecuted or sued for helping a person take steps to get an abortion. Some universities worry that will limit the conversations university healthcare providers feel they can have with students about their options.

Jennifer Wilder is the associate director for campus health at North Carolina State University. She's also a mom to one child starting college and another on the brink of graduating.

"The students today are very smart and they want to know and they want to be a part of their health care decisions," Wilder said. "They're at the cusp of voting for the first time and understanding how that impacts their healthcare and their decisions. I think it's really important that they can be involved in their healthcare decisions and they don't just have to be a part of a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, they have options."

She points out how crucial it is for students to have trust in their health care providers.

"So, if you don't trust your provider, you're not going to be honest, and some things that you don't tell them could impact your health care in a negative way," Wilder said.

North Carolina's governor recently signed an executive order to help protect women's access to reproductive healthcare. Currently, in at least 12 states, abortion is illegal or heavily restricted

"Reproductive health is such a big focus of what we do in college health. We're certainly keeping a close high on developments," Vaughn said.

The American College Health Association tell us, "These laws put that relationship and patient safety at risk by forcing healthcare providers into an untenable position when caring for students in a manner consistent with their professional and ethical obligations, and places them at risk of arrest or civil liability."

"We do everything we can to let the students know of the resources available and that we're here to talk to them," Vaughn said.

University leaders across the country are still trying to navigate this. In the meantime, these two experts say the best thing students can do is advocate for themselves.

"It's okay to question authority, it's okay to ask why," Wilder said.

"And it's very easy to say and very hard to do when you're 18, but we hope they learn to advocate for themselves. Not just on a political level, but when you come to see a doctor. Every time I see a student I say, 'What are you worried about today?'", Vaughn said.