In the News 2014
USA Today

Debate rages over contraception coverage in religious universities

On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays of every week, a small table is set up in ‘Red Square,’ a space on Georgetown University’s campus where student groups organize for expressions of free speech.

On the table is a bowl of free condoms and informational pamphlets about contraceptives and STI testing.

“This past semester, we handed out over 3,000 condoms,” says Laura Narefsky, the president of H*yas for Choice, the student group behind the effort.

“You can’t buy condoms anywhere on campus, not even at the student store.”

Georgetown, a Jesuit university with school policies based on Catholic beliefs, does not allow access to contraceptive services on campus.

The college senior says the group’s efforts are relevant now, due to the school’s location in Washington, D.C. – the city with one of the highest HIV and STD rates in the country, according to the Center for Disease Control.

This year, the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate went into effect, requiring all employers to provide cost-free coverage of prescription contraceptive methods to everyone enrolled in their insurance plan, without any co-pays.

The mandate, coupled with condoms from H*yas for Choice, provides Georgetown students under university insurance free access to all contraception methods.

Narefsky lists contraceptive uses beyond preventing pregnancy: alleviating skin conditions, protecting from STDs and preventing diseases like ovarian cancer.

For religious universities such as Georgetown, the mandate offers a compromise where organizations can shift financial responsibility of covering the cost of free contraceptives onto the insurance company. Then their insurer will directly provide contraceptive coverage to students and faculty without university involvement.

This compromise is sparking debate on campuses nationwide over whose rights should be protected: the rights of the religious institution or those of individual students and faculty. Opponents of the mandate cite encroachment on religious liberty. Some colleges have taken the debate to court.

Last week a federal appeals court approved a request by three anonymous female students from the University of Notre Dame to support the government against a lawsuit filed by their university, which argues the Affordable Care Act and the mandate’s compromise violate the school’s religious freedom.

Ayesha Khan, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and also the lawyer representing the three students, says the young women joined the litigation because they will be most affected by the final decision.

“Students have no income. They should be focused on academics and their future, not … how to afford healthcare that should already be covered in the first place.”

Meghan Smith at Catholics for Choice says any restrictions on contraceptive coverage disproportionately harm low-income students who are unable to pay out of pocket. Depending on location and brand name, the cost of birth control pills varies from $15 to $50 per month.

The number of college students at Notre Dame who will be directly affected by this lawsuit is small – less than 4% of undergraduate students are currently enrolled in university insurance, according to the school’s spokesperson, Dennis Brown. But nearly 60% of graduate students, who are more financially independent, are enrolled in school health plans.

Regardless of whether they are Catholic or are enrolled in university insurance, students and staff at religious universities have been very vocal about their opinions, saying this debate is a matter of principle, not just of practicality.

Erin Stoyell-Mulholland, president of Notre Dame’s Right to Life group, says the lawsuit is receiving support from her non-Catholic peers who also believe it is wrong for the government to force a Catholic university to provide funding for contraceptives out-of-pocket.

“If you force Notre Dame to follow laws in direct conflict with its beliefs, what’s to say it won’t go further? What if they start making Jewish places serve pork?”

Opponents of the mandate also argue that the compromise still requires Notre Dame to facilitate access to contraceptives, since they must fill out a form acknowledging their religious opposition. This gives insurance companies permission to take over.

Notre Dame Professor of Law, O. Carter Snead, echoes these concerns in an email.

“Notre Dame students and faculty who wish to use contraception are obviously free to do so. They are not entitled, however, to compel Notre Dame to facilitate access to contraception by virtue of its health plan.”
In truth, contraception is not a clear cut issue that merely pits church versus state, especially in the United States where Catholics are divided over the church’s opposition to birth control.

The Guttmacher Institute found 98% of U.S. Catholic women who have had sex, say they have used contraceptive methods other than natural family planning.

And a poll by the nonpartisan, Public Religion Research Institute, found nearly 60% of Catholics and about half of white mainline Protestants believe employers should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraceptives.

Johanna Thill, a Notre Dame sophomore who is neither Catholic nor enrolled under university insurance, argues it’s no longer about religious liberty since all financial obligations have shifted to the insurer.

“Notre Dame had every right to refuse to pay for coverage before,” she says,

“But the compromise is a perfect balance that allows the university to stand by its Catholic beliefs while giving students and faculty a chance to receive the same healthcare rights as everybody else in the nation.”

Note: The ACA’s birth control mandate does not change school policy that prevents insurance holders from obtaining non-medical contraceptive prescriptions and filling them on campus.

This piece was originally published by USA Today.

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