Advancing Reproductive Healthcare Access on Campus and Beyond: Deeya Sharma and Kels Cook on Their Reproductive Justice Adjacent Projects 

Submitted by Whitney Miller on
Deeya Sharma displays free pregnancy tests, part of the Campus Care Crate Initiative

Deeya Sharma and Kels Cook have worked separately to make reproductive healthcare available to UW students. They met in Spring 2023 with GWSS Communication Interns, Crystal Novoa and Hiroko Takatsuki, to share their perspectives and discuss their projects. 

Crystal: Please briefly introduce yourself and your relationship to the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. 

Deeya: I’m a senior at UW. My journey in the GWSS department started pretty recently. I’m a pre-med student, and I was a biology major for the first three years of my undergraduate career. When I started the major, I realized I was not enjoying it. Women’s rights have always been something that I’m very passionate about. When I realized the biology major was not a good fit for me, I had finished all my pre-med requirements. I decided to spend my last undergraduate year studying something that I really love and enjoy, which brought me to the GWSS major!  

Kels: I am not affiliated with the department in any formal capacity. I have taken a bunch of classes and love the department. I took the reproductive justice colloquium offered in winter quarter [2023], where I told [my instructors] about the coalition work we were doing, including at the state level, and we’ve stayed in touch from there. I’m a geography major and labor studies minor but love GWSS and would have minored in it if I hadn’t gotten to it so late.  

Crystal: Please tell us about your project and what inspired it. 

Deeya: The Campus Care Crate is an initiative to have free and accessible pregnancy tests on the UW campus. My project stems from my passion to integrate medicine and health care with feminist studies. My goal is to become a physician who serves women and LGBTQ+ communities and makes health care as accessible as possible. After the Roe v. Wade reversal, I read an article in The Seattle Times that stated there would be a 300% increase in demands for reproductive healthcare in Washington given that neighboring states were criminalizing or restricting abortion services.  

We know reproductive health care is already pretty inaccessible where we live. Getting an appointment takes forever; inquiring about our health and getting access to necessary procedures and products is a long and strenuous process already. The reversal of Roe v. Wade and its implications made me realize that early detection of pregnancies is incredibly important. I quickly realized there were no free pregnancy tests on the UW campus. My team and I have all realized, either from our personal experiences or from other people’s experiences, that not only are pregnancy tests hard to find, they also are extremely expensive. We knew this was a barrier that had to be removed.  

My friend, who is at the UW School of Medicine, and I created the Campus Care Crate initiative. We’ve been working together for almost a year to bring this initiative to life. We imagine free pregnancy tests in baskets to be readily accessible in different locations across the UW campus. Specifically, we want free pregnancy tests readily available at Hall Health, the first-floor gender-neutral bathrooms in Population Health, as well as in the UW School of Medicine student lounges.  

Kels: That sounds so cool, and I am glad you are working on that. My project is the emergency contraceptive (EC) vending machine on campus. That is just one part of the overall goal, which is bringing medication abortion services to campus health centers across the state of Washington. When I first started at UW in the fall of 2021, it was after the Supreme Court had decided to hear the Dobbs v. Jackson case. I had heard about what activists at the UC Berkeley campus had done to try to bring medication abortion to their campus health center, and how that had kicked off a movement that ultimately led to California being the first state to provide medication abortion at campus health centers across all their four-year post-secondary institutions in the Cal State and UC System.  

The EC vending machines are part of legislation that was already in the works when the leaked Dobbs opinion came out. At that point, I’d been working with Huskies for Reproductive Freedom, an undergraduate RSO on campus, and basically asked them, “Are you already doing something like this?” And they said, “No, but we are just starting to look at this EC vending machine through the organization EC4EC.” We passed [this legislative measure] out of the senate unanimously, and over the summer ASUW folks were working with Student Life to get the ball rolling. They got it installed by the first week of October and in the first three months of it being there, with just word of mouth and location [near By George Café in Odegaard Library], we were selling over a hundred boxes a week. The other thing that we’re really proud of is we put in our legislation that we wanted the EC to sell it at cost. So that’s why it’s available for $12.70. It actually costs less than that, but we had to roll in the cost of Washington state sales tax as well as the state vending machine tax. But it still is so much less than if people are going to a pharmacy over on University Ave or anywhere nearby. So we’re proud of it being accessible in location and cost. 

Crystal: That is awesome. When did you start becoming involved in feminist activism or reproductive justice in general? 

Kels: I was probably 10 years old when I started really becoming involved in feminist activism, but for the purposes of this conversation, I think it is the work that I was doing as a volunteer in Ohio, a state that has five neighboring states, all of which have more restrictive abortion access laws on the books, and increasingly so at the time that I was living there. That’s saying something because that was at the end of the John Kasich [former governor of Ohio] years of rolling back access. So, I have seen firsthand what happens when you are the state that is the nearest geographically to other places where restrictions are tightening even more. Coming back to Washington, something that was very clear to me [anticipating the overturning of Roe] was when I heard state legislators and the Governor saying, “we’re going to protect abortion and reproductive health care access here in Washington” was that “protect” has to mean expanding access.  

So we’ve been preparing, knowing that Washington State is a place not ready for this strain on resources. The people who already live here and face the greatest barriers to access are just going to face even more barriers to access with an anticipated 300+% of people traveling from outside the area to access abortion care. Rich white cis women will always be able to travel from other states to get abortion access just as they did pre-Roe, but if you talk to poor Black and Indigenous folks who have been navigating a post-Roe world since the Hyde amendment, we have a lot that we can learn from them on how to navigate the time we find ourselves in. And we don’t consider ourselves to be Reproductive Justice, because our campus group is not Black or Indigenous led. We consider our work as reproductive healthcare that is informed and inspired by the principles of Reproductive Justice. 

Deeya: That was so well said. And I want to echo reproductive justice versus reproductive health care access. I think my very first experience in women’s rights was starting my organization WE CARE–Women Empowerment through Collaborations, Awareness and Resources for Education. I started WE CARE when I was 16 as a high school club because I had experienced the blatant misogyny that comes with being an immigrant woman of color. Specifically, misogyny within the Indian community that is perpetuated by men and women against other women is something that we don’t normally address. My experiences, though difficult, led me to finding peace in activism. WE CARE started off just by fundraising for underserved girls and child brides in my hometown, Jodhpur, India. We started supporting these girls’ education through our partner nonprofit called “Veerni.” Before I knew it, we had more and more branches opening at different locations. This new community really expanded WE CARE into a powerhouse that now has an international newsletter, podcast, a mentorship program, and soon an app! Being the founder-president of WE CARE really pushed me to find my inner activist and feminist, and that is how my journey began and continues today.  

Crystal: What were some of the challenges that you encountered, especially working within an academic institution? 

Deeya: Funding. I was living in this sort of imaginary world, for lack of a better term, that I go to a university that has so much money and a huge health care facility on campus. Why would they not have $600 to spare on pregnancy tests for students? Very quickly we realized that being part of a large, publicly funded university is not an easy process to navigate. The most challenging and frustrating thing related to this project is that after speaking with physicians at Hall Health, the Dean of Student Life at the School of Medicine, ASUW president, and others, the response we get is “Love It. Can’t afford it.” While my university education and environment empower me to pursue this project, my university is the roadblock that prevents my project from coming to life. Why is it so hard for a student to get funding for projects that in fact improve the university and student experience? 

Kels: I’m just all snaps over here like, yes! I want you to know that you are not alone. I had such naivete about the power of the student senate, which is toothless within this institution. You asked what challenges I encountered. So much of that originally was just organizing. What started with me and one other person has grown to 17 different campus organizations working together in coalition, and a big part of that was recognizing the following: What happened with Berkeley folks is that the people who started it were no longer students by the time this new law and policy would be implemented at the state level.  

You have to leave the breadcrumbs for folks who come behind you, and that is to try to build a coalition that’s big enough that it continues on after you leave. Because these institutions can wait us out. They can wait for us to graduate, and they rely on us being so siloed and separate from one another so that we can’t build power. I think that what we were able to accomplish with the vending machine is a great tribute to how you can overcome that. But you are so right. It takes an incredible amount of coalition building and momentum. 

Deeya: I love what Kels said. I want to add that listening to students and those impacted is so important for any service or social justice project. The first thing to often be overlooked is listening to the people you are serving. As part of the Campus Care Crate initiative, we knew we wanted to understand student needs prior to implementation and project design. We conducted a campus-wide anonymous survey that guided our project. The results displayed that over 80% of students thought the average price of one pregnancy test in a 1.5-mile radius of UW was too expensive despite two-thirds of students saying that they’re employed. This is an issue that directly impacts me, my peers, and over 50% of the student body. I wish there was inclusive dialogue and willingness to hear from those who are impacted by the Roe v. Wade reversal and need free pregnancy tests.  

Kels: I agree that it should not be something that has to be explained and that this should be pretty obvious, right? There is no employee that is a part of this university, or that is a part of the state whose job it is to actually listen to and empower us. We have to empower ourselves and make so much noise that they can’t ignore us.  

Crystal: How would you define reproductive justice or care? What do you think are important next steps in the struggle on campus or overall, in the U.S. or even internationally? 

Deeya: I think reproductive justice for me on a personal level is when we can have readily accessible, readily available reproductive resources and services available for all individuals. And I think it’s an aspect of something that Kels alluded to earlier, where reproductive justice cannot be achieved without hearing the Black and indigenous voices that are part of our community. It’s also feeling empowered within our sexuality and bodies, which is similar to Audrey Lorde’s “eroticism.” But I think ultimately it is something that is very dependent on empowering the communities that have brought us here. I think this is a question that I am still exploring and hopefully will continue to explore as I continue my work and activism.  

Kels: I feel like SisterSong has defined reproductive justice appropriately, and their definition of it cannot be rephrased or summarized. All credit to where it’s due to them. I think that how I like to embody the values of reproductive justice is through mindsets of abolition and critical geographers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which is that abolition is not absence, its presence. It’s the presence of life-affirming institutions. It’s not just about them empowering the voices of people who have been systemically disempowered, or listening to the voices of the people who are speaking from these groups. It is about following their leadership. It is about knowing when to shut up and follow the example that they are setting for us. We are ready for this moment if we are principled in the outcome and not centering our egos. And that means following the leadership and the examples set forward for us by people who’ve been navigating a post-Roe world for a generation longer than those of us with more privilege. So we already know how to face this moment. We just need to listen. Not just listen, but follow. That leadership is there. 

Crystal: What would you like people to learn from your work and what your communities have been doing? 

Deeya: Specifically regarding the Campus Care Crate initiative, I would say that no project, no amount of reproductive justice or health care access is really achieved without perseverance. This is definitely easier said than done. As activists and advocates, we experience burnout, distress, and a range of emotions. Taking care of ourselves is key for our personal wellbeing and also ensuring that we are able to make sustainable, consistent change. I think the one thing I would want someone to learn about is the power of coalition and collaboration. When we collaborate, we interact with diverse perspectives which can be key in informing our work, but also amplifying and improving it. I like that Kels mentioned the importance of empowering but furthering it to following. I think a way we can do that is through collaboration where we can follow different and diverse perspectives. Lastly, I hope any college students who feel passionate about certain initiatives embark on their journey of making them come to life. Don’t be afraid to bring the change that you want and don’t be afraid to ask other others to join you, because there are people who will say yes, and you will make a wonderful team at some point. 

Kels: I love that. I think that’s a really wonderful note to end on. What we’re doing isn’t just working on legislative action or just abortion. It’s about expanding reproductive healthcare access on campus. So if there are people who are hearing or reading this, and are interested in carrying your work forward Deeya, since you're graduating and going on to other things, that’s part of how it works.  

I also want to add that there can be protection when there are more of you. I think we’re so often socialized to think of ourselves as needing to be the hero. Part of the challenge with our society is this idea of rugged individualism, which is just toxic. One thing we learn from mutual aid and coalitions is that being one person among many means that you get to screw up. You get to be imperfect. And it’s important to practice being imperfect and screwing up, too. College is a great place to do that.  

What I hope that people will learn from this is how to stay aligned. I loved what you said, Deeya, about taking good care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup and so often we try to, especially when we’re younger. These institutions will do everything they can to make you feel bad about yourself, and they’ll tell you all kinds of things to spend money on. But what you have is time and energy. Use it and use it for your wellbeing, and to learn your limitations so that you don’t burn out. Because every time you burn out, it takes longer to recover. And I’m really proud of the work that you’re doing Deeya. Thank you so much. 

Deeya: Thank you, too. I loved what Kels said about it’s not always about abortion access. It is just about health, and I want to share a narrative from one of our anonymous forms. It was so powerful for me and really broadened my understanding. Someone said, “I’m reliant on pregnancy tests every month not because I’m trying to get pregnant, not because I’m afraid that I’m going to need an abortion. I’m reliant on them because I have an irregular menstrual cycle. It is just part of my health. I just need these pregnancy tests. There’s no abortion message attached to that. It is just for my health.” And I loved that Kels said the story doesn’t just stop at abortion. Abortion is a big part of it, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s about health care as a whole.  

Kels: And I want to add that not every abortion is from an unintended pregnancy either. There are plenty of people who have very much wanted pregnancies and need to access abortion for a number of different reasons. 

I think it gets characterized particularly by politicians and legislators, even in Washington state, that the reason that we’re asking for this on college campuses is because people got drunk at a party and made a mistake, right? But it’s also like condoms break, birth control fails, ectopic pregnancies happen. There’s a number of reasons why we got to Roe in the first place, but even they want us going to these third-party clinics because they want to shame us and create stigma around it. Nothing makes me happier than knowing that somebody is able to access that emergency contraceptives just in case they need it without any stigma and without any interaction with somebody who is going to give them some kind of look or anything to that effect. Because it’s just health, it’s just our bodies. And we deserve the best when it comes to our bodies. Everybody! 

Deeya: I started the pregnancy test issue thinking it’s just unaffordable. But you know what I didn't consider? I didn’t consider that people would want a free and accessible pregnancy test basket because of the stigma that they get. People will talk about these looks that they get from the drugstore individuals, the judgment that occurs, the way that they have to come into their home hiding it from their roommates. That was not in my narrative, but it is in the narratives of the hundreds of people that filled out that anonymous form.  

Kels: With our open letter we heard stories about one person going and buying emergency contraception for their roommates, people who are here on student visas, where it was not only language barriers but also systemic racism, so now they send their pretty, white, cis roommate to go and get it. That in and of itself guided us when working on this legislation or collective action to ask ourselves, “Okay, if you are a DACA recipient who is disabled and also English is your second language, what are the barriers? If you’re low-income, queer, and you’re already a parent? What are the barriers that you’re facing here while also a student, but also just generally?” Because we want to make sure that we’re removing the lens that is so often applied through the media and just through social narrative, and especially in Seattle, through white feminism. Those narratives are pervasive. They’re leaving people out. They’re marginalizing and rendering the people invisible who need to be included the most.  

Crystal: Thanks so much to the both of you.  

Transcribed and edited by Spring 2023 GWSS communication interns Crystal Novoa and Hiroko Takatsuki. 

Update: Kels Cook served as co-author of “Demand For Medication Abortion among Public University Students in Washington,” recently published in the Journal of American College Health

Student activists also got a budget proviso for $200,000 in state funds for publicly funded community colleges, technical schools, and universities to receive up to $10,000 for the purchase, installation, maintenance, and initial stocking of emergency contraception vending machines. Applications for schools open at the end of October, and funds will be dispersed in early 2024.