Commentary Abortion

Off-Campus Catholic Conservatives Meddle With Abortion Coverage for Loyola Marymount Faculty

Bridgette Dunlap

Having to fight your employer for health-care equity is bad; having to fight whoever else has an opinion on it is worse.

A few weeks before the start of the semester, Anna Harrison, an associate professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), a Catholic-affiliated University in Southern California, learned that the abortion coverage faculty health plans had included since 1988 had been dropped. She did not learn this from the university’s human resources department, a representative from her health plan, or in her plan brochure; she got the news from the listserv of the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), a conservative Catholic group that is not affiliated with LMU.

The National Catholic Reporter termed the CNS the “Catholic academic ayatollah” in 2009, when CNS was whipping people into a frenzy over President Obama giving the commencement address at Notre Dame. But the CNS devotes most of its outrage to everyday occurrences. The group searches campus announcements for speakers, scholarship, and student groups it doesn’t like and tries to bully school administrators into silencing or firing those it deems insufficiently Catholic by writing harassing blog posts and launching mass email campaigns. Faculty members at LMU have been targets of such campaigns, receiving emails that recommend the inclusion of “more appropriately Catholic” materials, such as specific readings and handouts. Other emails have indicated that particular scholarship is not compatible with Catholic teachings, with LMU President David Burcham or a department chair copied on the correspondence.

The CNS wants to return us to an earlier era in which Catholic universities embraced the most conservative teachings of the church and dissent wasn’t tolerated, though there is little evidence universities orthodox enough to please the CNS ever existed. Decades before CNS founder Patrick Reilly matriculated at Fordham University in the 1980s, finding it to be insufficiently doctrinaire, clergy, faculty, and students at Catholic-affiliated schools had advocated for changes in church doctrine and access to contraception. Furthermore, the idea that scholars should be limited by hierarchy-approved dogma is fundamentally at odds with the purpose of a university, especially one like LMU that claims academic freedom and pluralism as values and serves diverse student populations.

It perhaps shouldn’t come as a shock that the CNS has begun trolling through health insurance plans attempting to exercise a line-item veto, given the en vogue idea that women’s insurance plans should be church-approved. But it is astonishing that the group seems to have had some success.

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According to the CNS, a “faithful Catholic professor” at LMU complained about the abortion coverage in connection with a report CNS was preparing to release “revealing” the decades-old fact that LMU’s health insurance plan covers contraception and abortion. Presumably, this professor only noticed the coverage when the CNS brought it to his attention; as you may have guessed, he is male.

Professor James Hanink and the CNS were pleased to learn that abortion coverage would be dropped, but criticized the school’s compliance with California law mandating contraceptive coverage, noting some schools have gotten around it by self-insuring.

When the stealthy coverage change was met with outrage from the faculty and staff, school administrators claimed in a statement that the insurer had dropped the coverage back in January of 2013, without notifying the school, in response to previous requests to drop such coverage; coverage would be excluded for 2014 as well. The statement claimed, “The decision to exclude this coverage, once it became possible, flows directly from our values as a Catholic university in the Jesuit/Marymount traditions.”

LMU’s faculty did not let the assertion that Jesuit tradition dictates the kind of insurance coverage it offers to its diverse faculty and staff go unchallenged. The faculty senate unanimously passed a resolution affirming its commitment to diversity and freedom of conscience. Faculty and staff circulated a petition and published an ad in the campus paper with over 100 signatures attesting:

As members of the LMU community, we value the freedom of conscience, diversity, and collaborative decision making, necessary for the well-being of a university. We urge the University to maintain full healthcare coverage for women.

The LMU administration acknowledged that dropping coverage for the current year was an error and had it reinstated, but faculty and staff members now must fight to reverse the decision to exclude coverage in 2014. The issue will be the subject of an October meeting of the board of trustees.

Meanwhile, the CNS continues to insert itself into the situation. Days after Pope Francis’ statements suggesting the church shouldn’t be so obsessed with homosexuality and abortion, the CNS demonstrated it hadn’t gotten the memo with the headline “Homosexual Employees of Loyola Marymount Univ. Seek Abortion Coverage.”

(That unintentionally comedic headline aside, abortion rights are important to LGBTQ individuals, not only because of related rights to privacy, equality, and sexual autonomy, but also because lesbians and transgender individuals experience sexual assault at higher rates than the general public and are less likely to be using contraception.)

After the CNS publicized internal letters meant to be confidential, their authors received the kind of harassing phone calls that those of us who have incurred the ire of the CNS have come to expect. In fact, one day after the publication of the petition in the university newspaper, the CNS reached new lows by identifying a handful of people who signed the petition. The group’s website identified staff and faculty members by name, department, and faculty status (adjunct and assistant-level faculty are not protected by tenure) and highlighted the content of one adjunct faculty member’s Facebook page.

The interference from off-campus conservatives at LMU is part of a pattern that undermines the idea that Catholic-affiliated universities can be first-rate institutions of higher learning equal to their secular peers—institutions that are welcoming to scholars regardless of gender or religion, where equality and academic freedom are respected, and where representations made while recruiting non-Catholics and dissenting Catholics can be trusted. These attributes of LMU, and not simply the coastal climate and global metropolitan appeal of Los Angeles, draw quality faculty members from across the country.

This interference by the CNS is also an important illustration of why the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate is necessary. Health insurance is a form of compensation, and it needs to meet certain standards no matter what the political fight of the moment is. Having to fight your employer for health-care equity is bad; having to fight whoever else has an opinion on it is worse.

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.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Catholic Hospitals Really Can Be Dangerous for Women

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Plus: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death will continue to affect numerous court cases; crisis pregnancy centers still don't promote patient health; a gender discrimination lawsuit at a major newspaper; and more.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

According to a newly leaked report, a Michigan-based Catholic hospital chain risked the lives of at least five pregnant patients because rather than follow standard medical care, staff adhered to Catholic doctrine instead. It’s not clear what, if any, impact this report will have on the several lawsuits attempting to hold Catholic hospitals liable for prioritizing religious directives over patient safety, though.

Hopefully, the public will soon get the message that crisis pregnancy centers do not promote patient health.

We are about a month away from oral arguments in the second Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit, and the religiously affiliated institutions challenging the rule in lower courts keep losing. This time, it’s at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled that the Catholic broadcasting network EWTN must comply with the accommodation process set up by the Obama administration if it wants to opt out of providing contraception coverage for its employees. 

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Justice Antonin Scalia’s death has North Carolina Republicans scrambling; they were counting on his vote to support their plan to use racial gerrymandering to disenfranchise Black voters.

Meanwhile, the dust is still settling on the impact Scalia’s death will have on the Court’s major cases this term. The short answer is that nobody knows, and we’ll likely be figuring out the answer in the Supreme Court’s following term. 

Bob Dylan is fine and all, but here’s hoping that a more diverse Supreme Court will produce a wider array of rockers quoted in court opinions.

Anita Hill for the Supreme Court? Maybe the Kesha case will change your mind.

Georgetown Law students and faculty have a lot of feelings about Scalia’s death. A lot.

Congressional Republicans just made it clear they plan on obstructing any nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, ensuring the Supreme Court remains a political issue through the 2016 presidential election.

A candidate for district court judge in Van Buren County, Arkansas has withdrawn from the race after a blogger published a text message from the candidate, in which he called a county clerk a racial slur. Or at least apparently tried to. There are some spelling issues to work out.

The families of Sandy Hook shooting victims are one step closer to being able to hold assault rifle manufacturers responsible for their marketing of these guns to civilians.

The New York Times faces another gender discrimination lawsuit, this time from a female advertising executive who says she was fired for taking maternity leave.

We should end on some good news. In an important win for abortion providers, Maryland’s highest court unanimously ruled state officials can keep secret the names of applicants for abortion clinic licenses.