NEW YORK — Bridgette Dunlap says she expected Fordham University to provide students with “standard health care.”
“To the extent that a Jesuit university is not willing to provide standard health care, the students need to know about that,” said Dunlap, a third-year student at Fordham Law School who said the university has never explicitly disclosed on its website or student handbook that she cannot obtain prescription hormonal contraceptives at on-campus clinics.
Dunlap also said Fordham has failed to explain what medical exceptions are made for students looking to obtain contraception, as well as what the rules are that govern related on-campus issues, such as condom distribution.
“We have only asked them to document and explain the policies. The lack of notice of the policies causes a number of problems for Fordham students,” said Dunlap, president of the Fordham chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, a national nonprofit network of lawyers and academics who advocate for legalized abortion and expanded access to contraception, among other related issues.
The controversy at Fordham represents another struggle for Catholic universities dealing with the tensions of officially upholding Church teaching on faith and morals in the midst of a pluralistic and increasingly secularized society. Further, a number of national surveys confirm that the majority of Catholics use contraception and many challenge the Church’s positions on issues such as legalized abortion and same-sex “marriage.”
Catholic universities have a right, and from many parents’ perspective, an obligation, to safeguard certain ethical and moral standards, said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which has sought to renew and strengthen the religious identity and mission of Catholic higher education.
“Clearly, a Catholic university cannot refer students to abortion, contraception or anything contrary to Catholic teaching,” Reilly said. “It is not charitable for students to be bullying a Catholic institution into doing something a Catholic institution should not be doing.”
Dunlap, a product of Catholic schooling, and other students from the Fordham Law Students for Reproductive Justice chapter organized a well-publicized off-campus birth-control facility on Nov. 30. Medical volunteers and doctors from the Institute for Family Health in New York City prescribed birth control to 40 Fordham students, made appointments for six others seeking intrauterine devices, and counseled several more on birth-control options.
“It is important to recognize that there are divergent views among Catholics, especially on the topic of contraception, when we have more than 90% of sexually active Catholic women admitting to being on contraception,” said Dunlap, who told the Register that only “a small, extreme minority” of Catholics on campus believe that contraception is intrinsically evil, as taught by the Church.
State Law Requires Coverage
Reilly said it is inappropriate for Fordham students to be involved in groups like Law Students for Reproductive Justice, which has chapters or some presence at more than 100 law schools, including many Catholic universities, across the country.
Law Students for Reproductive Justice’s advisory board consists of representatives from groups that support legalized abortion and family planning, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Abortion Federation, the Feminist Majority, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Its national office says it supports law students’ efforts to gain contraceptive coverage in student health insurance, increase access to emergency contraception, raise money for abortion funds and post-natal maternal health care, and recruit volunteers to escort people into abortion businesses, among other activities.
The Fordham chapter’s official university website lists members’ pro-abortion activities, including their work as escorts for Planned Parenthood and partnerships with local pro-choice legal organizations.
“Students engaged in an activity like this at a Catholic institution should be disciplined. This is not simply free speech,” Reilly said.
Fordham has thus far released a prepared statement affirming its identity as a Catholic university that “follows Church teachings on reproductive issues.”
“We’re sure that our students are well aware of Fordham’s Jesuit, Catholic identity: It is central to our mission and is featured prominently on our website and in our publications,” the university said.
Though required by New York state law to provide coverage of prescription contraceptives in its insurance plans, Fordham’s Student Health Center does not prescribe birth control. To access those services, Fordham students must visit off-campus clinics. The university said its policies in this area are straightforward.
Fordham stated: “The actual student health-insurance policy is very explicit about what is and isn’t covered, including coverage of birth control; the university website is less explicit regarding services available through the Student Health Center. We’ve heard the students’ concern on this, and may in fact edit the Web copy to be more specific, but it’s a fine line: We don’t itemize non-birth-control services on the website, either.”
Dunlap said the Law Students for Reproductive Justice chapter has not demanded that Fordham prescribe birth control on campus, but that the university explicitly put forward all its family-planning policies in writing.
“It is my understanding that Catholic doctrine does not prohibit the use of hormonal contraception to treat medical conditions, and yet students with conditions and health risks ranging in severity are routinely turned away, even when our health center has or has been offered documentation of prior diagnoses,” Dunlap said.
Expecting Too Much
Jeffrey Gray, Fordham’s vice president of student affairs, affirmed the university’s Catholic identity in an Oct. 14 email to Dunlap. Gray also reiterated Fordham’s policy that birth control will not be provided through the campus’ health services offices, but he conceded that Dunlap and the Law Students for Reproductive Justice chapter had a point.
“Perhaps we have erroneously assumed that others would understand this (contraception policy) as a practical matter, given the prominence of our mission and traditions at the university. We will take steps to ensure that proper clarity is provided on these matters in the future,” Gray said.
Two months later, Dunlap said Fordham has still not acted.
“We did not anticipate that Fordham would resist disclosing its policies,” she said. “We thought it was an oversight that would be quickly corrected once it was brought to the university’s attention that the language in our insurance contract that explains Fordham insurance covers contraception is misleading, in the absence of any mention of the fact that the health centers, where Fordham-insured students are expected to receive their primary and gynecological care, will not prescribe it.”
The Fordham Law Students for Reproductive Justice chapter has been distributing a petition demanding that the university clarify its policies on birth control not being offered on campus, the possible exceptions and the rules about condom distribution on campus (Fordham prohibits it). The petition also asks Fordham students to support the chapter’s efforts to “organize alternative avenues for students to procure birth control and condoms.”
Dunlap rejects the argument that she and like-minded students should have known they were matriculating in a Catholic institution before making demands about expanded access to contraception.
“Catholics and Catholic institutions are capable of being free and making their own choices without having to be controlled,” said Dunlap, who further argued that there are many non-Catholic Fordham students whose religious traditions do not ban contraception. She said they have a right to know what the university’s family-planning policies are.
Reilly said students should not expect a Catholic university to violate Catholic teaching.
“Catholic universities have been extremely generous in their welcoming of non-Catholic students and allowing them to follow their beliefs and personal traditions, but for a student to expect the university to act contrary to Catholic principles,” Reilly said, “is a non-generous response to the university’s generosity.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.
An earlier version of this article stated that Law Students for Reproductive Justice had a chapter at several Catholic universities, including The Catholic University of America. Jill Adams, executive director of the organization, clarified that LSRJ “has been supporting individual students from The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law in their efforts to learn about reproductive-rights law and justice and to connect with like-minded peers and professionals throughout the country. It is for this reason the website says LSRJ has a presence on that campus. Numerous members of our organization are law students on campuses where, due to the ideological or cultural climate, they cannot be part of an officially recognized student organization. They are nonetheless valued members who give LSRJ a presence at these institutions.”