A Battle Over the Morning-After Pill

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What kind of student is attracted to a feminist cause these days? Sometimes it's someone like Krissy Schnebel, 19, who has little interest in feminist politics.

The controversy surfaced this spring at James Madison University in Virginia's historic Shenandoah Valley when a state legislator became outraged that the school's health center was dispensing an emergency contraceptive known as the morning-after pill. Virginia state delegate Robert Marshall learned that the publicly funded university had prescribed the pill more than 2,000 times since 1995. The pill, which acts by delaying ovulation, preventing fertilization or inhibiting implantation, is in Marshall's view a form of abortion, and he sent a chiding letter to J.M.U. president Linwood Rose and the board of visitors, as the school's trustees are called. Mark Obenshain, a trustee and pro-life candidate for the state senate, was also distressed, as were pro-life voters, so he introduced a measure to stop the center from providing the pills. It passed by a 7-6 vote. The health center immediately stopped dispensing the drug.

Schnebel, a sophomore and member of the student government, read the news in the local paper. "It blew my mind," she says. "I couldn't imagine why they would take away something that is legal in the U.S." Her objection "didn't have anything to do with the issue of abortion," she says. "It was the fact that a group that has so much power, our board of visitors, made a decision that directly affects the health and safety of the students, and they didn't ask us, and that's just not fair."

As a student senator, Schnebel could write a bill asking the board to reverse its decision, but she would need 1,500 signatures on a petition before she could bring it up in the J.M.U. senate, which had to approve her proposal before it could go to the trustees. A further complication: she and her supporters had two days to get the signatures in time for the senate's last meeting of the school year. Schnebel and her friend Mandy Woodfield, 20, swung into action, using today's tools of campus protest: instant messaging, email, cell phones and the Internet. Says Schnebel: "My buddy list was just exploding."

The night before the senate meeting, Schnebel tossed and turned, worrying about the speech she would give and a few threatening phone calls she had received. On the big day, supporters set up a table in the commons to collect last-minute signatures. Opponents such as Andrew Dudik, 22, the elected student member of the board of visitors, showed up too. "I don't believe the school should be in the business of providing something so controversial, because some see it as an abortion method," he says.

At 4 p.m., an hour before the meeting, Schnebel started counting signatures. There were 2,714, nearly double the required number. the senate later voted 54-6 in favor of the bill. The trustees have yet to decide whether they will reconsider the issue at their next meeting in June. Meanwhile, the reversal measure's initial success has earned praise from NARAL Pro Choice America's Kate Michelman and an offer from Choice USA for Schnebel and another advocate to attend a five-day summer training program at the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute. But Schnebel insists that she is not interested in a political career. She plans to pursue a master's degree in special education and hopes to work eventually with children who have cerebral palsy or autism. Her campaign, she says, was spurred by the belief that "you can't ignore students when we attend a public university. We are the university. Our voices will be heard."