How an anti-abortion campaign overtook a reproductive rights club on one Texas campus
Updated April 28, 2023 at 10:00 AM ET
At least once a day, Nimisha Srikanth pulls out industrial size boxes from under her dorm room bed and goes to work.
She pulls together condoms, pregnancy tests or Plan B – whatever a student requests – places them in an unmarked brown paper bag, and heads out onto the campus to meet up. No names are exchanged, no words need to be said, it's a simple handoff in a public place.
Srikanth is the president of a student group that provides covert access for students to emergency contraception around Texas A&M University's campus. Their drop-off service for students – who can either text the group or fill out an online form for kits – has served hundreds of students since its inception in 2020.
"It just looks like a lunch sack you would take to school. Or it's something small enough you can just put inside a bag or a backpack, and nobody will know until you go home, and then you can take it out," Srikanth explains.
FREE Aggies, or Feminists for Reproductive Equity and Education, started the drop-off service due to COVID, but when the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, the group's leaders decided to keep it going. Despite the high demand, Srikanth says, its run is coming to a close at the end of this semester, due to lack of student involvement. Dozens of once-active members have stopped showing up, and the group is down to just four students.
She believes this is due in part to the air of risk around reproductive health products, even though every item FREE Aggies provides is legal in Texas. Since the Supreme Court ruling, the atmosphere surrounding reproductive rights on campus has become even more hostile.
"Definitely going inside the student health center and walking to that pharmacy, picking it up, that's definitely a little bit more risky for some students," she says.
An air of secrecy
These concerns aren't unique to Texas A&M, but permeate colleges all over the state, says Kimberley Harris, a professor of constitutional law at Texas Tech University.
"The political climate is such that it is such a controversial topic," she says. "It is so highly charged that that'll make some people go, 'I don't want to be involved with that at all,' whatever their personal views are."
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned and the Texas abortion ban took hold, Harris says student behavior has changed significantly, with some stocking up on Plan B and birth control.
She believes that what's happening in Texas is a preview of what college students in other states can expect: "I think everyone in the country needs to pay attention to Texas. Whether you live in Alabama or California, what happens in Texas might be coming to you."
A two-sided debate
On the other side of the debate, a group at Texas A&M called Pro-Life Aggies is thriving. It's the largest anti-abortion rights group on campus, with students packing their weekly meetings to hear guest speakers from around the country. With over a thousand people on their email list, the group also gives out scholarships for student parents, puts on large-scale displays, and hands out flyers in the student center.
"We'll have resources and pamphlets with educational topics like fetal development, and also we have pamphlets for pregnancy resource centers and just everything like that on our table," says Grace Howat, the group's president.
Howat says Pro-Life Aggies has done its best to keep the exchange with abortion-rights advocates civil and respectful. "We've really had to make sure that we continue to be very kind towards them and understanding and that we meet them where they are and that we're able to reassure them that, you know, we do care about women as well as children and reassure them that our movement's here to protect both."
Salem Smith, one of the last members of FREE Aggies, says that, nevertheless, the Supreme Court ruling has made it tough for their small abortion-rights group and for students who are in need of their service.
"In larger organizations that have always been bigger and had this momentum, it's kind of easier because you're one in a crowd," they say. "But sometimes, with these smaller organizations, it can be scary. It can be scary, especially with some of the incidents we've had in the past."
This includes pushback while handing out flyers, friction with the administration and even one of the former student leaders receiving harassing phone calls. So as the remaining few members of their group graduate, they'll have to wait and see if a new generation of Aggies takes up their fight.
"The spirit will live on, even if it's not under the same name, even if it's not run by the same people."
For now, though, their efforts will remain in the background. This past week, Pro-Life Aggies held a big rally on campus, called "Memorial of the Innocents" that featured over 1,000 crosses, each representing two abortions in the U.S. everyday.
Audio story produced by: Janet Woojeong Lee
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Edited by: Steve Drummond
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.