Analysis Contraception

For It Before They Were Against It: Catholic Universities and Birth Control

Bridgette Dunlap

Did you know that from the sixties through the nineties, clergy and faculty at Notre Dame, Georgetown, and other Catholic-affiliated universities lobbied for coverage of birth control? And argued for the moral imperative of providing coverage for contraception... even on campus?

If you weren’t eagerly checking the bishops’ blog for their feelings on your health insurance, you may not have known last week was Catholic Schools Week! I generally don’t participate in the bishops’ weeks (or fortnights), but I think this is an ideal moment to highlight the proud history of advocacy for contraceptive access at Catholic-affiliated Universities—which is relevant to all those lawsuits that won’t be going away now that His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan has spoken.

We begin at Notre Dame in 1966. Faculty members formed a group to advocate for government funding of family planning programs and advertised a statement of support in Catholic publications. They received over 500 signatures in under a month from Catholic clergy, nuns, lawyers, doctors, and faculty members  at Catholic universities, including the deans of Notre Dame and Santa Clara’s law schools. The Notre Dame professor chairing the committee told the New York Times the group wished to emphasize that “in a pluralistic society, some legislation may be desirable even though it may not be in accord with the moral principles of a minority of the society’s members.”

The chairman explained that the impetus for the group’s formation had been an address by the Rev. Dexter L. Hanley to the American Bar Association arguing for government family planning programs. Father Hanley was a law professor at Georgetown University. Yes, that Georgetown. The same Georgetown that trained a lawyer named Sandra Fluke. Father Hanley also testified before a congressional subcommittee in support of access to contraception. So when Sandra Fluke did the same thing, not only was she acting like a lawyer, which is presumably what one attends Georgetown Law to learn to do, she was following in the footsteps of a revered Georgetown professor and priest who had inspired Catholics across the country to take action.

Though Fluke is regularly accused of demanding government funding for contraception, what she actually testified about was the sub-par plan available to Georgetown students (who are required to have health insurance). Typically, student health plans involve students paying money to a third-party health insurance company; neither government nor university funds are involved in these transactions. Father Hanley, however, was indeed advocating for taxpayer-funded contraception and education. He acknowledged Catholic teaching against contraception but testified that he could firmly maintain his moral positions as a Catholic while supporting a government program that “permits each citizen a fully free moral choice in matters of family planning, and aids him in implementing this choice.”

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Today, rather than permitting its students a “fully free moral choice” as Father Hanley advocated, Georgetown has taken advantage of the safe harbor from the contraceptive coverage requirements, claiming it has a religious belief that bars providing insurance that covers contraception. This is hard to believe given that faculty members’ health plans have included contraceptive coverage for years. Also, Georgetown hosted an excellent conference on the Health and Human Services regulation where most scholars rejected the claim that providing coverage violated Catholic doctrine or that requiring it violated the law. The robust defenses of Sandra Fluke from the University President and the law school faculty were lovely, but fixing the problem she testified about is what’s needed.

Let’s return to Notre Dame. From 1963 to 1967 Notre Dame held an annual “Conference on Population.” The conference, organized with the help of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was intended from its inception to be a forum to develop a more liberal Catholic position on contraception. In 1965, thirty-seven scholars who attended the conference sent a statement to the Pope that declared “[t]here is dependable evidence that contraception is not intrinsically immoral, and that therefore there are certain circumstances in which it may be permitted or indeed even recommended.” Notre Dame’s President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, later got his friend John D. Rockefeller a secret meeting with the Pope to discuss the problem of overpopulation.

Despite this history, the University has now claimed in its lawsuit that Notre Dame, whoever that is, has a sincere religious belief that the Church’s “centuries’ old teachings” prohibit coverage. This is despite the fact that its own theology students and faculty can’t get their questions answered about what the theological claim for the prohibition of contraceptive coverage is and people like Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of both law and theology at Notre Dame, have argued the legality of the mandate in detail. A further troubling sign from an institution that was once the place for principled discussion of contraception, is that Notre Dame’s website refers students to what appears to be a “Crisis Pregnancy Center.” When I called up the “Women’s Care Center,” they told me they do not actually have doctors on staff or prescribe contraception.

Now we turn to the Catholic-affiliated University most important to me, my alma mater and employer, Fordham University. In 2012, the New York Times featured the first off-campus birth control clinic organized by Fordham law students in a front page article about the debate over the HHS rule. A 1967 Times article, “150 Fordham Women Petition for a Class on Birth Control” shows that Fordham students sharing their adventures in contraceptive access activism with the Gray Lady is nothing new. One of the Times’ follow-up articles on the topic, “Fordham to Give Seminars on Sex,” indicates that what has changed since 1967 is the responsiveness and boldness of the University administration.

The Fordham dean of students explained to the Times in 1967 that the sexual education program would “include frank discussions of methods of conception and contraception” and was permissible because “the morality of contraceptives does not enter into the discussion.” The University even agreed to the students’ request for a physician at the health center who could answer questions about birth control.

Today, unfortunately, Fordham health center policies are governed by the bishops’ health care directives, which prohibit medical professionals from “condon[ing]” contraception. Administrators recently censored posters advertising “Prescribe Fordham2!” the second off-campus clinic, though this raises academic freedom concerns given that the event is now sponsored by multiple academic departments. This is not a good situation, but Fordham students have it much better than those at the universities suing over the “contraception mandate” (at least the students with insurance do). Fordham students have had contraceptive coverage for years and thanks to the Affordable Care Act, they can now go see a real gynecologist off-campus without paying a co-payment.

In 1967, Fordham’s “very progressive and new and different” program was credited with being the first among Catholic universities to undertake a “frank discussion of sex.” Boston College students, however, refused to wait for more favorable conditions on their own campus to get the information they needed. According to the Catholic magazine Ramparts, when birth control activist and educator William R. Baird lectured at nearby Boston University that year, Boston College students “defied threats from the college’s dean and turned out in force.” The historic event led to Baird’s arrest for distributing contraceptives: his conviction was reversed in 1972 by the Supreme Court ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established the right of unmarried persons to possess contraception.

Finally, no discussion of Catholic colleges and contraception would be complete without recounting what went down at the Catholic University of America. Father Charles Curran joined CUA’s theology faculty in 1965. He was considered a theological moderate but argued for a change in the Church’s doctrine on contraception. The trustees voted to terminate Father Curran in 1966 though the theology faculty had voted unanimously to promote him. CUA’s theology faculty went on strike; theology faculties across the country joined them. This led the trustees to reconsider.

Despite nearly losing his job, Father Curran declined to toe the party line or even keep quiet. In 1968, the Pope rejected the recommendations of his papal commission on contraception and released Humanae Vitae to the surprise and dismay of the many Catholics who had expected a reform of the prohibition. Humanae Vitae was met with unprecedented, widespread, vocal dissent. The theology faculties of Fordham, Marquette, Boston College and other schools made public statements opposing it. Father Curran authored a statement criticizing it that 600 theologians signed.

He continued to publicly dissent from teachings on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality and the Vatican began investigating him in 1979. In 1986, he received a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, informing him he’d been found unfit to teach theology. That’s when Father Curran lost his job at the institution he’d served for two decades.

A supporter at Notre Dame explained to the Los Angeles Times at the time that CUA’s charter gives the Church control of the University, while at another school like Georgetown or Fordham, Father Curran could have been criticized but not fired. I doubt theologians are quiet so confident about their religious and academic freedom today (especially those who followed the debacle at The University of San Diego), but for the most part, academics are allowed to develop Catholic thought, in fact that is kind of the point. The ranks of the bishops, however, have essentially been purged of dissenters and progressives. As Leslie Woodcock Tentler documented in Catholics and Contraception: An American History, one’s response to Humanae Vitae  became a litmus test for leadership positions in the Church.

Here’s why all this matters: the picture of Catholic-affiliated institutions dominant in the lawsuits and the discourse surrounding the HHS rule is not accurate. The sentiment of “it’s a Catholic school, go somewhere else if you don’t like it” is based on ignorance and stereotype. We employees and students did not waive the benefit of being protected by  generally applicable laws and we weren’t asked to. We entered into contracts with our particular institutions, we didn’t consent to being governed by whoever is on top in the Catholic hierarchy at any given time. Obviously, I can’t speak to every institution. Maybe the Catholic University of America tells you on the tour that the school has been censured by the Association of American University Professors for academic freedom violations. But from professors who joined universities decades ago to students who just matriculated, I hear that they asked, just as I did, how the Catholic-affiliation would affect their work and experience. We received assurances that allowed us to enter these vibrant academic communities that don’t resemble the orthodoxy machines being portrayed at all. The assertions in so many of the cookie-cutter birth control lawsuits show a disdain for individual conscience, basic contract principles of notice and consent, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy from the Church. The histories of our institutions show that is not who we are and it is not what we signed up for

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Cathleen Kaveny’s first name. We regret the error.

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 Media

Study: Politicians Dominate Nightly News Reports on Birth Control

Nicole Knight Shine

Study co-author Michelle H. Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, noted that news segments largely framed contraception as a political issue, rather than a matter of public health.

When it comes to asking experts to weigh in on birth control, the nation’s three major TV networks favor political figures over doctors, according to a forthcoming paper in the journal Contraception.

Analyzing nightly news segments on contraception on ABC, CBS, and NBC between 2010 to 2014, the authors found that few broadcasts included medical professionals (11 percent) or health researchers (4 percent). Politicians, however, dominated coverage, appearing as sources 40 percent of the time, followed by advocates (25 percent), the general public (25 percent), and Catholic Church leaders (16 percent).

Sixty-nine percent of news segments on birth control included no medical information, the authors found.

Study co-author Michelle H. Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, noted that news segments largely framed contraception as a political issue, rather than a matter of public health.

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“Health professionals are an untapped resource for ensuring that the most up-to-date, scientific information is available to the public watching the news,” Moniz said in an email to Rewire.

An estimated 24 million Americans watch nightly news, making it an “influential information source,” the authors note.

And although nearly half of pregnancies in the United States each year are unplanned, news segments did not emphasize highly effective contraception like IUDs, the researchers found. Instead, emergency contraception, commonly known as the morning-after pill, warranted the most coverage, at 18 percent, followed by the daily oral contraceptive pill, at 16 percent.

The researchers’ analysis of 116 nightly news segments coincided with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act by President Obama and continued through the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which carved out the right for private corporations to deny birth control coverage to employees on religious grounds.

“We found that when the network television media covers contraception,” the authors observed, “they do so within a largely political frame and emphasize the controversial aspects of contraception, while paying less attention to health aspects and content experts.”

The paper was authored by five researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the Veterans Affairs Center for Clinical Management and Research in Michigan; and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The study builds on earlier work exposing media bias and gender disparities in reproductive health coverage.

In June, an analysis of prime-time news programs on cable networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC by media watchdog group Media Matters for America found that 40 percent of guests on all three networks made anti-choice statements or identified as anti-choice, compared with 17 percent of guests who made pro-choice statements or identified as reproductive rights advocates. On Fox, guests made a total of 705 inaccurate statements about abortion care over a 14-month period.

The nightly news study follows a report earlier this year on gender disparities by the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, indicating that male journalists dominate reproductive health coverage, with bylines on 67 percent of all presidential election stories related to abortion and contraception. Female journalists, in comparison, wrote 37 percent of articles about reproductive issues.