Commentary Contraception

Despite State Birth Control Mandate, Fordham Law Students Lack Access to Affordable Contraception Even for Medical Reasons

Bridgette Dunlap

Under New York State's law mandating insurance coverage for contraception, Fordham was able to accept that religiously-affiliated entities that want to sell products in the marketplace like insurance and federally-subsidized education must meet the same quality standards as non-religious organizations. Unfortunately, despite state law, Fordham still fails to guarantee access to affordable contraception.

This article–originally submitted as testimony to the the February 16th, 2012 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing on Women’s Health and Contraceptive Coverage–is co-authored by Emily Wolf, Fordham University School of Law, Fordham Chapter, Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

For all our coverage of the 2012 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing, click here.

For all our coverage of the 2012 Contraceptive Mandate, click here.

We are students of the Fordham University School of Law in New York City. Fordham is a Jesuit-affiliated university, however, our student health insurance covers contraception as required by New York State law. The New York Women’s Health and Wellness Act was passed in 2002 with the goal of promoting women’s health and ending gender discrimination. 

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From our perspective here at Fordham, the suggestion that requiring the non-discriminatory prescription coverage we already enjoy represents some kind of new and unprecedented encroachment on religious freedom seems strange and disingenuous. 

The New York law is not a violation of religious freedom. Fordham didn’t have to go out of business or stop providing prescription coverage. Our institution was able to accept that religiously-affiliated entities that want to sell products in the marketplace like insurance and federally-subsidized education must meet the same quality standards as non-religious organizations.

Unfortunately, even though we have contraceptive coverage thanks to the protections of New York state law, Fordham students still do not have access to affordable contraception. This is because our health centers, where students with University insurance are meant to receive our primary and gynecological care, will not prescribe contraception. So, whether a student needs contraception to prevent pregnancy, treat a medical condition or both – she has to pay a $100 deductible to visit a doctor off-campus for a prescription – even if she already underwent a gynecological exam on-campus in the mistaken belief that Fordham provided standard care. One hundred dollars on top of a monthly copayment is a significant barrier to practicing contraception for a student living on loans. 

The experiences of women at Fordham show that though health exemptions from birth control bans may seem workable in theory, they are not in practice. The Fordham health centers tell us they have a health exception, but students report being turned away despite medical conditions, some of them quite dangerous or painful. Students have been refused contraception despite having endometriosis, severe acne, ovarian cysts, and a high risk of ovarian cancer.

After hearing the stories from many women affected by the no-birth control policy, we decided we needed to address the lack of access to affordable contraception. Last November, our student group, the Fordham Chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, organized a one night off-campus clinic so students could obtain birth control prescriptions. Over forty students met with doctors and around one hundred students came out to show their support. We are extremely grateful for the doctors who provided us treatment free of charge, but it is unfortunate that though we pay $2,300 to $2,400 per year for insurance we have to take up volunteer resources that should go to women who lack insurance and financial resources.

At the clinic, we had the opportunity to talk with smart, thoughtful undergraduates from Fordham’s Bronx and Manhattan campuses. 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 the clinic on their campuses. 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 culture of secrecy, and outright denial of the fact that some students are sexually active, is not conducive to informed desicion-making.

Our efforts to improve contraceptive access at Fordham have been met with various iterations of “you should have known” or “it’s you own fault for going to a Catholic school.” This is a problematic idea for a number of reasons. It inaccurately paints Catholics and Catholic institutions as monolithically rigid, unreasonable, and beholden to the Vatican. 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. The implication that no Catholic-affiliated institution would provide standard health care or put policies in place that aren’t papally-approved, such as allowing LGBTQ student groups on campus or providing benefits to the same-sex partners of faculty members or funding scholarship contrary to Catholic doctrine, is inaccurate and offensive. It rests on stereotypes of Catholics and ignores the fact that students contract with a particular institution, not a religious hierarchy. 

On the other hand, our work to get Fordham women the healthcare they need has also been met with an extraordinary outpouring of support. Fordham students thank us for fighting for them and send their stories, professors tell us they are proud, and alumni of Fordham and other Catholic universities email their encouragement and advice. 

We sincerely believe that the medical personnel at our health centers would like to provide the care that is most appropriate for their patients. We also believe that Fordham and other Catholic-affiliated institutions would like to do what is in the best interests of their students and employees. However, Catholic-affiliated institutions are subject to significant pressures from influential groups off-campus that purport to speak for Catholics but may not represent the views of Catholic educational institutions, their students or employees. Given this reality, we need laws that require equality in health care access. Our experience at Fordham shows that religiously-affiliated institutions can comply with laws that protect a woman’s individual conscience and simultaneously promote their values and further their missions. 

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.

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.