News Contraception

Law Students Fight Fordham University’s Bait and Switch on Coverage of Birth Control

Bridgette Dunlap

Fordham University prohibits the prescription of contraception at its health centers and the distribution of condoms on campus though many students aren't aware of that until they've paid for the school's insurance or visited the health center. Many are denied birth control even when facing health risks. This week, law students at the Catholic school are taking matters into their own hands by organizing a clinic just off-campus.

See all our coverage of the Birth Control Mandate 2011 here.

A coalition of Fordham Law student groups has organized a birth control clinic just off campus that will take place this Wednesday.  Though you wouldn’t know it from the university website and insurance materials that explain our health plan covers contraception as mandated by New York law, our Catholic university prohibits the actual prescription of contraception at its health centers. Students with university insurance must get our primary care and annual exams on campus or incur extra costs, and since the health center won’t prescribe it, that means extra costs for birth control. The distribution of condoms on campus is prohibited as well, though this rule is also not available in writing.

The Fordham chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice first asked the university for documentation of its policies eight months ago.  We were planning a panel with Catholic theologians to discuss the doctrine behind the university’s policies on contraception, but we couldn’t find out what those policies are.  The panel happened even though we never got the documentation.  

Students often learn that the health centers have religiously-based prohibition on contraceptive care only after purchasing university health insurance or seeking care. The university’s position seems to be “What do you expect this is a Catholic school?” Well, I knew I went to a Catholic school, but I didn’t know I went to that kind of Catholic school.  And, other students don’t know about the Catholic aversion to birth control or don’t expect it to affect health care for a religiously-diverse student population.

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Furthermore, our undocumented contraception ban lacks a health exception.  Administrators and health center staff claim there is one, but in practice it does not exist. One student with endometriosis was prescribed painkillers instead of birth control pills.  A student with irregular periods and a sonogram of an ovarian cyst was refused contraception as well.  Another student offered her medical records to prove she had had both an ovary and an abdominal mass removed and was at high risk of ovarian cancer.  Before she could obtain a prescription for the pill, she was told to get a letter from her doctor, who is across the country and charges a $25 fee for such letters.

Students are of course free to see a doctor off-campus, but under their university insurance plan they will incur a $100 “per condition” deductible; this is in addition to the cost of an annual exam they already had at the university health center. In many cases, students don’t learn about about the school’s policies and these hidden costs until they are shivering in a paper dress on the table in a doctor’s office. Students on tight budgets who want birth control have resorted to various workarounds.  When health center staff refused to administer a Depo-Provera shot to a student, she had a friend of a friend who was an acupuncturist do it. Another had her medical resident boyfriend write her a prescription, though he had no experience in women’s health. Most often, however, students get their medical care at Planned Parenthood, an organization perennially at risk of funding cuts whose resources are needed by uninsured and low-income patients.

We decided to organize the clinic after we got tired of writing and discussing and asking nicely for the policies. The clinic is a way to address the expense and inconvenience that result from the policies and to make unknowing students aware that the university provides non-standard health care. It is also an opportunity to discuss the significant but under-recognized influence on women’s health of Catholic leaders far outside the lay Catholic mainstream.

Doctors from the Institute for Family Health were more than happy to help us with our clinic but it hasn’t been easy to pull off. University administrators forbid us from having the doctors come to campus and have limited our ability to advertise to students.  We rented a space, but lost it unexpectedly and had to scramble to find another.  It is unclear whether the university is considering disciplinary action. It’s been pretty chaotic, but we’re still on.

Our university gives the impression that it provides standard care to its religiously-diverse student population, perhaps because it fears alienating its many moderate Catholic and non-Catholic students.  Its insurance plans technically cover birth control because it is ineligible for the religious exemption in New York’s Women’s Health and Wellness Act, but still make access to birth control difficult and expensive and in this way it really isn’t “covered.” So even at a university that does not qualify as a religious institution under state law, women’s health is quietly marginalized for religious reasons.  

This is not something anyone, let alone a bunch of soon-to-be lawyers, should just accept. We deserve documentation of the policies affecting our health and finances and the freedom to solve the problems they cause off-campus at the very least. The law school student body and faculty have been extremely supportive; they are grateful and proud of our efforts. Students have shared their stories with us of how the university’s practices have affected their lives and health and an important conversation has begun on campus. And, the university seems to be taking our concerns a bit more seriously since we decided to take matters into our own hands.


These groups are asking you to join them in telling the White House not to capitulate to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and throw women under the bus on contraceptive coverage:

Catholics for Choice

National Women’s Law Center

Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health

Feminist Majority Foundation

Emily’s List

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

NARAL Pro-Choice America

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

News Law and Policy

Wisconsin GOP’s Voter Restriction Law Suffers Another Legal Blow

Imani Gandy

In blocking many of Wisconsin's elections restrictions, the lower court ruled that the state must reform how it deals with voters who have difficulty obtaining the required photo ID to vote.

A federal appeals court yesterday refused to stay a lower court order blocking several Wisconsin voting restrictions, allowing election officials to move forward with early voting in the state next month.

Attorneys on behalf of the state of Wisconsin filed the request for a stay with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals after a lower court judge last month issued an injunction that blocked parts of Wisconsin’s sweepings elections laws.

The lower court ruled that the justification for the laws did not justify the burden on voting rights that they impose. And this week a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit declined to stay that ruling, without explaining.

The ruling comes days after elections officials in Madison and Milwaukee announced their intention to kick off early voting in late September, a month earlier than would have been allowed had the lower court not struck down the restrictions on early voting, according to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

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The Republican-backed elections law created state-imposed limitations on the time and location for in-person absentee voting, a provision requiring absentee ballots be sent by mail instead of fax or email, the requirement that dorm lists—a certified list provided by the university of the students living in college housing, which student voters may use as proof of residence—must include citizenship information, a ban on using expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs to establish proof of residency, and a 28-day durational residency requirement.

In blocking many of Wisconsin’s elections restrictions, the lower court ruled that the state must reform how it deals with voters who have difficulty obtaining the required photo ID to vote. Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the GOP-controlled Wisconsin legislature had implemented a system under which people who don’t have birth certificates or who have problems with gathering documentation needed to obtain the proper identification would still be able to vote.

The lower court noted that the Walker administration’s system did not provide a viable long-term solution for those voters who could not obtain their birth certificates because they were destroyed in fires or misplaced by bureaucrats.

The court later stayed that portion of the ruling, stating that the system created by Walker’s administration—which provides people with temporary voting credentials while they await a decision about whether they qualify for an ID—was sufficient to allow people to vote during the upcoming November election and therefore does not need to be immediately reformed.

The ruling comes on the heels of a ruling in another voting rights case in Wisconsin, Frank v. Walker, about the state’s voter ID law. In that case, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit stayed a ruling that would have permitted anyone eligible to vote in Wisconsin to an accommodation that would permit that voter to cast a ballot after signing an affidavit stating that they could not easily obtain an ID.

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