Commentary Contraception

Fordham Law Students’ Health Clinic a Success, But University Still Refuses to Divulge Health Care Policies

Bridgette Dunlap

Last week, the Fordham Law School chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice held an off-campus clinic to provide access to birth control prescriptions and condoms to students of our Catholic University.  It was a greater success than we had hoped for, but the University still refuses to clarify its policies, much less prescribe contraception.

Last week, the Fordham Law School chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice held an off-campus clinic to provide access to birth control prescriptions and condoms to students of our Catholic University.  It was a greater success than we had hoped for.  Once we were in a room packed with students meeting with doctors and having important conversations with each other, it felt totally removed from the fear, drama and controversy that led up to the event.  Forty students received prescriptions and two or three times that number came out to show their support. 

I was especially grateful for the opportunity to talk with smart, thoughtful undergraduates from both the Bronx and Manhattan campuses and I hope that going forward law school students will be more involved in our larger university community. Undergraduates told us in person and in their exit surveys that access to contraception was a problem for them and they wished we had advertised more on their campuses. Unfortunately, the University forbade us from doing so. 

The impact of the University’s policies on the undergraduates, which I suspect may be even greater than that on the law students, is in fact a major concern driving our efforts.  It is extremely important for young women to be able to access comprehensive medical care without feeling judged or censored, regardless of whether they are having sex or plan to anytime soon.  Conversation and information help young women to anticipate and make decisions about what kind of sexual experiences they want to have and when.  Sex should be something a woman chooses because she wants it, not something that happens to her; a campus culture of secrecy and denial of the fact that some students are sexually active isn’t creating the conditions for that.

I hope that the conversations started at the clinic will lead to collaboration between law students and undergraduates to make Fordham a better place for women and all students. Fordham law students, many of us active in public service and activism throughout the world, can be a greater resource in our own community.  We should know about the obstacles the undergraduates face in their efforts to improve the University’s sexual assault policy or to put up the Vagina Monologues.  Fordham Law is training us to be skilled and dedicated advocates; we can help.

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This is not to say that we are advocates with a track record of fast results.  While the clinic itself was a huge success, it does not seem to have significantly changed the University’s unwillingness to tell us what its policies are.  Its statements to the press indicate only that they will think about updating the website.  This is unacceptable.  We deserve to know if there is a health exception to the as of yet unwritten no-contraception policy.  If there is, we need to know what medical conditions are covered and of what severity.  We need to know if health center staff are qualified or authorized to diagnose these conditions.  We also deserve to know what the condom policy is.  Is possession forbidden or just distribution?  What about giving a condom to a friend?  It is pretty difficult to respect the “institutional conscience” of a University that won’t write its rules down, let alone explain the underlying Catholic principles they claim to be promoting.     

Perhaps the most exasperating, and in my view harmful, response to our demands that the University document its policies and allow us to work around them are the various iterations of “you should have known” or “it’s you own fault for going to a Catholic school.” (I’m looking at you, supposedly-liberal Jezebel commenters).  This is a problematic idea for a number of reasons.  First of all, it paints Catholics and Catholic institutions as monolithically rigid, unreasonable and beholden to the Vatican.  That is not true of the Catholics I know or grew up with and that is not true of any of the Catholic schools I have attended.  Catholic institutions can and do embrace people of varying beliefs, religions, sexual orientations and cultures.  Fordham University could not attract the caliber of students and faculty it does if it did not, and it might endanger any state or federal funding it has if it did.  There is nothing special about Catholic institutions that exempt them from accurately describing the services they sell.   The implication that none of them would provide standard health care or do other things that aren’t papally-approved, such as allow LGBTQ student groups on campus or provide benefits to the same-sex partners of faculty members or fund scholarship contrary to Catholic doctrine, is inaccurate and offensive.  It rests on stereotypes of Catholics and ignores the fact that we contract with the institution, not the Pope. 

Secondly, treating any religion as monolithic silences internal dissent.   I will try not to get too deep into the political theory here, but basically the idea that “if you don’t like it you can leave” is harmful to women and other less powerful members of a religion or institution.  When reformers are pushed out of a group, it strengthens conservative norms and the power of those with an interest in the status quo, leaving vulnerable group members who can’t or don’t want to exit the group at their mercy.  (Fun fact:  I used to think Catholicism was especially impervious to reform because of the infallibility of the Pope, but it turns out, as I learned from a Fordham theologian, he isn’t infallible, only certain teachings are.  And Humanae Vitae isn’t one of them.)  It is important to make trouble where there is injustice rather than leaving or silently accepting the supposedly inevitable.

Third, and most importantly, Catholic influence affects everyone.  That Fordham women don’t have notice that they will have to pay an extra $100 for their first world healthcare is not the biggest problem on the planet, but it speaks to a much larger issue.  Groups that claim to speak for Catholics are extremely powerful.  This is evident in the US Conference of Bishops having the ear of the President to argue Catholic institutions shouldn’t have to abide by the same Health and Human Services rules as everyone else who provides insurance. In many other instances, however, this influence is under- recognized.  For example, how many people know that if an ambulance takes a woman having a septic miscarriage to the nearest hospital and that hospital turns out to be Catholic, the hospital may be able to let her die rather than perform an abortion but be protected from liability?  How many people know how extreme the Catholic Healthcare Directives are or how they might affect one’s treatment for an ectopic pregnancy? The secrecy and inattention to women’s health exhibited by the University’s failure to give us the website update we’ve been asking for also underlies larger, potentially life-threatening issues.  We need to fix them in our communities if we hope to fix them in the world.

Going forward, Fordham LSRJ will keep working to get documentation of the University’s policies on its website, and we expect we will need to hold another clinic a year from now, if not sooner.  

Commentary Contraception

For Students at Religious Universities, Contraception Coverage Isn’t an Academic Debate

Alison Tanner

When the U.S. Supreme Court sent a case about faith-based objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate back to lower courts, it left students at religious colleges and universities with continuing uncertainty about getting essential health care. And that's not what religious freedom is about.

Read more of our articles on challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit here.

Students choose which university to attend for a variety of reasons: the programs offered, the proximity of campus to home, the institution’s reputation, the financial assistance available, and so on. But young people may need to ask whether their school is likely to discriminate in the provision of health insurance, including contraceptive coverage.

In Zubik v. Burwell, a group of cases sent back to the lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, a handful of religiously affiliated universities sought the right to deny their students, faculty, and staff access to health insurance coverage for contraception.

This isn’t just a legal debate for me. It’s personal. The private university where I attend law school, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., currently complies with provisions in the Affordable Care Act that make it possible for a third-party insurer to provide contraceptive access to those who want it. But some hope that these legal challenges to the ACA’s birth control rule will reverse that.

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Georgetown University Law Center refused to provide insurance coverage for contraception before the accommodation was created in 2012. Without a real decision by the Supreme Court, my access to contraception insurance will continue to be at risk while I’m in school.

I’m not alone. Approximately 1.9 million students attend religiously affiliated universities in the United States, according to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. We students chose to attend these institutions for lots of reasons, many of which having nothing to do with religion. I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center because I felt it was the right school for me to pursue my academic and professional goals, it’s in a great city, it has an excellent faculty, and it has a vibrant public-interest law community.

Like many of my fellow students, I am not Catholic and do not share my university’s views on contraception and abortion. Although I was aware of Georgetown’s history of denying students’ essential health-care benefits, I did not think I should have to sacrifice the opportunity to attend an elite law school because I am a woman of reproductive age.

That’s why, as a former law clerk for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, I helped to organize a brief before the high court on behalf of 240 students, faculty, and staff at religiously affiliated universities including Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and the University of Notre Dame.

Our brief defended the sensible accommodation crafted by the Obama administration. That compromise relieves religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations of any obligation to pay for or otherwise provide contraception coverage; in fact, they don’t have to pay a dime for it. Once the university informs the government that it does not want to pay for birth control, a third-party insurer steps in and provides coverage to the students, faculty, and staff who want it.

Remarkably, officials at the religious colleges still challenging the Affordable Care Act say this deal is not good enough. They’re arguing that the mere act of informing the government that they do not want to do something makes them “complicit” in the private decisions of others.

Such an argument stands religious freedom on its head in an attempt to impose one group’s theological beliefs on others by vetoing the third-party insurance providers’ distribution of essential health coverage to students, faculty, and staff.

This should not be viewed as some academic debate confined to legal textbooks and court chambers. It affects real people—most of them women. Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and other groups that study human sexuality have shown that use of artificial forms of birth control is nearly universal among sexually active women of childbearing years. That includes Catholic women, who use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics.

Indeed, contraception is essential health care, especially for students. An overwhelming number of young people’s pregnancies are unplanned, and having children while in college or a graduate program typically delays graduation, increases the likelihood that the parent will drop out, and may affect their future professional paths.

Additionally, many menstrual disorders make it difficult to focus in class; contraception alleviates the symptoms of a variety of illnesses, and it can help women actually preserve their long-term fertility. For example, one of the students who signed our brief told the Court that, “Without birth control, I experience menstrual cycles that make it hard to function in everyday life and do things like attend class.” Another woman who signed the brief told the Court, “I have a history of ovarian cysts and twice have required surgery, at ages 8 and 14. After my second surgery, the doctor informed me that I should take contraceptives, because if it happened again, I might be infertile.”

For these and many other reasons, women want and need convenient access to safe, affordable contraceptives. It is time for religiously affiliated institutions—and the Supreme Court—to acknowledge this reality.

Because we still don’t have an ultimate decision from the Supreme Court, incoming students cannot consider ease of access to contraception in deciding where to attend college, and they may risk committing to attend an university that will be legally allowed to discriminate against them. A religiously affiliated university may be in all other regards a perfect fit for a young woman. It’s unfair that she should face have to risk access to essential health care to pursue academic opportunity.

Religious liberty is an important right—and that’s why it should not be misinterpreted. Historically, religious freedom has been defined as the right to make decisions for yourself, not others. Religious freedom gives you have the right to determine where, how, and if you will engage in religious activities.

It does not, nor should it ever, give one person or institution the power to meddle in the personal medical decisions of others.

News Violence

Redacted Deposition: University Protects Football Players Accused of Sexual Assault

Zoe Greenberg

The school’s top victim advocate describes the university’s response to sexual assault as one that favored football players and often resulted in rape survivors withdrawing instead of perpetrators getting expelled.

In a deposition that Florida State University fought to keep secret, the school’s top victim advocate describes the university’s response to sexual assault as one that favored football players and often resulted in rape survivors withdrawing instead of perpetrators getting expelled.

Melissa Ashton, the former director of the Victim Advocate Program at FSU, said that her office served 113 victims of sexual battery (Florida’s term for rape) in 2014. But the university reported 20 cases of sexual battery to the federal government in 2014, according to the school’s annual crime report.

The discrepancy between the two figures exists because the majority of incidents occurred off-campus, Ashton said, and federal law only requires universities to report sexual crimes that take place on school grounds.

Ashton, in her nine years at FSU, estimated that her office handled 40 cases of rape or intimate partner violence involving football players. One football player that she could recall was found responsible of rape by the university during that time.

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“The majority of survivors choose not to go through a [hearing] process a lot of times based on fear,” Ashton said. She explained that survivors on campus have a “fear of retaliation, seeing what has happened in other cases and not wanting that to be them.”

The testimony is part of a federal Title IX lawsuit filed by Erica Kinsman, who says Jameis Winston, a former FSU football star and now the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, raped her when they were both undergraduates and FSU did not adequately investigate the crime.

A university code of conduct hearing last year cleared Winston of wrongdoing. In December 2013, the local prosecutor said he did not have enough evidence to press charges criminally, after what the New York Times called a “flawed rape investigation.” Kinsman is now suing Winston in civil court; he is counter-suing for defamation. The case is receiving renewed attention after the documentary The Hunting Ground, in which Kinsman appears, premiered on CNN last week.

In an email statement to Rewire, the university said, “We have no way to confirm or deny Ms. Ashton’s claims given that her communications with such victims are confidential.”

“The number of 100, whether accurate or not, would include victims reporting both recent/current experiences and those who may have experienced victimizations long before coming to FSU but are triggered by something and want to talk,” the statement read. The school maintained that Ashton’s office does not track cases involving specific sports, so that an estimate of how many assaults involved football players would be difficult to verify.

FSU tried to get a federal judge to block the release of all the depositions related to Kinsman’s case, according to the Associated Press, but the judge refused. Unable to keep the documents secret, the university released heavily redacted depositions late on the eve of Thanksgiving. Browning Brooks, a university spokesperson, told Rewire that the documents were redacted in accordance with Florida’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which exempts education files from the public record.

Specific references to Winston and Kinsman are absent from the portions of the depositions that were released. Also absent is any reference to a second woman who apparently sought counseling at FSU after a sexual encounter with Winston, according to the New York Times investigation. When asked by Rewire whether the redacted portions related to the second woman who sought counseling, Brooks wrote, “We can’t characterize the depositions. We released what we could to you. Obviously, we can’t legally comment about things that were redacted.”

Throughout the deposition, Ashton expressed concern that football players at the school received preferential treatment from university officials, law enforcement, and the community. Ashton said football is “all anyone talks about.” The FSU football team brought in more than $74 million in 2013.

Ashton noted that since May 2015, when a rape complainant or her attorney requested records from the university’s Victim Advocate Program, the university’s general counsel first reviewed those records. Thus, the university read confidential documents about sexual assault without student permission.

“This would be Ms. Ashton’s interpretation, not necessarily the university’s,” Brooks wrote.

Ashton resigned in August, according to Brooks. She could not be reached for comment by Rewire.

“If students understood that anything they said to counseling professionals who are working under university resources could be used against them in litigation, that would certainly limit their ability to get the support and services they may need,” Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for program at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a phone interview with Rewire.

FSU also released the 186-page deposition of Jimbo Fisher, the school’s head football coach. Many of the pages were blank because they had been redacted, though in the non-redacted sections, Fisher said he knew little about the university’s policies surrounding sexual violence.

“If somebody said there was a sexual assault, in your understanding, what do you think that would be?” Kinsman’s attorney asked Fisher in the filing.

“I would not make that assumption,” Fisher said.

“Okay. What about, let’s say we are talking about sexual harassment, does that mean anything to you?” the attorney asked.

“I would ask somebody who is an expert in that,” Fisher said.

“Okay,” the attorney said. “You don’t understand anything about the university’s policies regarding sexual harassment?”

“Not in detail,” Fisher said.

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