At a March 1971 public forum with Duke University student body presidential candidates, Duke sophomore William Kennedy asked the aspirants if they would consider creating a fund that would loan students the money to have abortions.
Kennedy’s question was not without context. He and some fellow students had found themselves discussing lack of abortion access during a late-night chat. Like any other university, the private institution in Durham, North Carolina, was home to undergraduate students who desired the option to terminate unintended pregnancies.While North Carolina had legalized therapeutic abortions (those necessary for health reasons) in 1967, New York state became the first state to make abortion legal and widely accessible in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade did so nationwide. New York’s more permissive laws gave a Duke woman a better opportunity to make her own reproductive choices.
But the problem then, as it is so often now, was cost. Traveling from North Carolina to New York, staying at a hotel, and paying for the procedure imposed an enormous financial burden for undergraduate women. Kennedy and his friends knew that even if abortion was attainable in a distant state, money still made it out of reach for many low-income students and those unwilling to divulge a pregnancy to parents.
The candidates excitedly responded that it was an excellent idea, catalyzing the creation of the Duke University Abortion Loan Fund. It became only the third college-based abortion fund of this nature, after those established at the University of Maine and the University of Florida.
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Those same students worked with Kennedy to design the fund and submitted a formal endorsement supporting its creation to the Duke student legislature. In a recent interview, Kennedy, now an attorney in the Boston area, said that the idea of the fund “wasn’t really about taking a moral stance on abortion as much as it was about making rights more egalitarian. Abortions were legal in New York, and a lot of [Duke] students could afford to exercise their rights, but not everyone could. It seemed like a good use of the funds to help people.” Kennedy officially presented the Duke University Abortion Loan Fund proposal to the student legislature on April 19, 1971.
In May, student representatives overwhelmingly approved a one-time allocation of 73 cents from each undergraduate’s activity fee for a total of $4,000 to establish a self-perpetuating fund. Loans would only be made available when previous loans had been repaid. Any pregnant Duke University undergraduate or Duke University undergraduate who had impregnated a woman could borrow up to $300 without interest, as long as they submitted proof of the pregnancy and agreed to later provide a receipt from the procedure to the confidential Abortion Loan Committee, which consisted of undergraduate students.
As anyone who follows today’s conservative uproar over public funding for abortion might have guessed, not everyone in the Duke community was pleased by this use of common funds. Exactly one week after the fund’s approval, a male student submitted a petition of 555 signatures demanding that refunds be issued to students who morally opposed the fund. This request was denied not once, but twice by the legislature, and the abortion loan fund forged ahead. In October 1971, it was incorporated as a nonprofit organization and began issuing its first loans.
Because so few universities had such funds, Duke’s made national headlines. Many people across the country were compelled to write university president and former Democratic North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford with their anger and disgust. Several of these letters have been preserved in the Duke University Archives. One anonymous writer said, “THANK GOD WE NEVER SENT ANYONE TO DUKE UNIVERSITY AND ARE STILL AROUND TO STOP ANYONE THAT WE CAN FROM GOING TO SUCH A HELL HOLE. IT SURE IS TOO BAD THAT YOUR PARENTS AND THE PARENTS OF ALL WHO THINK AS YOU DO DID NOT ABORT YOU AND YOU WOULD NOT BE HERE TO INCOURAGE [sic] SUCH MURDERING.”
Sanford’s office met each and every one of these letters with a standardized response that clarified that the fund was solely the doing of Duke’s students. The university administration emphasized its lack of involvement and redirected all inquiries and complaints to student government. With 15 women utilizing the fund each year—the full financial capacity of the fund—students saw public criticism as no justification to reconsider its existence. There was clearly a need.
Under the student government administration of the loans after the Abortion Loan Committee dissolved in 1976, borrowers were required to undergo peer counseling with Duke’s sexual health student organization. They also were contracted to pay the loan back within—interestingly—nine months. Loan defaults became a significant problem, and the fund’s very existence was threatened as its cash reserves were depleting. In an attempt to save the fund, its managers eventually added a new stipulation. If a loan remained unpaid after nine months, a borrower would forfeit the right to confidentiality and the charge would be applied to the borrower’s student bursar bill—a statement that was typically forwarded to the student’s parents and had to be paid in full before graduation. One hundred percent of loans were paid after this punitive addition, and the Abortion Loan Fund continued to thrive throughout the 1970s.
However, the 1980s were a different story. In a world saturated with Reaganism and anti-abortion rhetoric, the fund was again called into question. In 1981, students pushed for a maternity loan fund to accompany the abortion loan fund, citing the need to support Duke’s women’s choices to carry a pregnancy to term. The maternity fund was approved by the legislature, and a total of $400 in loans was set aside to be reserved exclusively for Duke women who planned to give birth.
Three years later, the Abortion Loan Fund faced serious opposition. In February 1984, the four-year-old chapter of Duke Students for Life began campaigning for an immediate end to the Maternity and Abortion Loan Fund. They demanded that student government put the fund’s continuation to a student vote, but the legislators refused. Widespread backlash to this decision was expressed in the student newspaper, where the co-president of Duke Students for Life, Mary Carlisle, said, “The fund is hurting people …. The fund is denying me the right to help a girl [who is pregnant] in my way. Pro-abortion mentality is being forced on me.” Although opposition to abortion was expressed as the reason to bring the fund to a vote, more students were angered over the denial of democratic processes. More than 1,000 student signatures were delivered in support of a referendum, and legislators were soon forced to put the fund on the ballot.
Surprisingly, after all of the debate, the Duke University Maternity and Abortion Loan Fund prevailed. On April 10, 1984, its continuation was overwhelmingly supported by a vote of 1,535 to 518. With such a strong approval of the fund’s role and its consistent use, it was maintained until the mid-2000s. It only ended then due to defaulted loans and the resulting shortage of money, said an anonymous Duke University Student Health official.
While an abortion loan fund no longer exists at Duke University, there are still financial options for Duke students who wish to terminate a pregnancy. Although several U.S. states ban all insurance plans from covering abortion, North Carolina is not one of those. Like many universities, Duke has a health insurance requirement to enroll as a student. Students who are uninsured or are inadequately insured are enrolled in Duke’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Student Medical Insurance Plan, which covers the cost of abortion up to 16 weeks. The cost of the insurance plan itself is also covered by financial aid for students who are unable to pay.
The author would like to thank the Duke History Revisited research program and the staff of the Duke University Archives and David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.