First in a three-part series on the promotion of contraception and abortion on college campuses — and how some Catholic and pro-life groups are fighting pro-abortion initiatives.

WASHINGTON — Last spring, officials at George Washington University received a letter sent on behalf of three law students demanding the student health insurance plan cover prescription contraceptives.

The letter claimed the exclusion of contraceptive coverage constituted sex discrimination and therefore violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.

The university quickly complied and added insurance coverage for oral contraceptives for the 2002-2003 school year. Dean of Students Linda Donnels said it was simply a matter of identifying and meeting another need for the 1,500 students enrolled in the plan.

The situation never made it into court because the school complied immediately, but some question whether the incident is just one of several in a concerted effort. During the past year, numerous colleges and universities have received this same request for contraceptive coverage. Most have acquiesced.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, doesn't think each case is an isolated incident. “Increasingly, it seems apparent that there's a coordinated campaign going on to provide contraceptives on campus,” he said.

Fueling this thought is the fact that in the GWU case, the letter was sent by three organizations known for pro-abortion views: Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, National Women's Law Center and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Planned Parenthood also joined forces with a student at the University of Delaware last year. At their request, contraceptives became a standard component in the student health plan. Students at New York University signed petitions demanding that emergency and prescription contraceptives and abortion be added to the health insurance plan, while University of Virginia students took a different tact by petitioning the student council and sending letters directly to insurance representatives demanding contraceptive coverage. Although students at the University of Illinois already had contraceptive coverage, they lobbied for the same benefit for faculty and staff.

The lobbyists base their demand on the section of Title IX that applies to student health and insurance benefits. It states that schools may not “bar benefits or services which may be used by a different proportion of students of one sex than of the other, including family planning services.”

“If the university chooses to provide a health plan to students, Title IX requires that it be offered on a nondiscriminatory basis,” said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education at National Women's Law Center.

But Richard Thompson, chief counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, said the interpretation of the legislation is incorrect. “Title IX never meant to cover contraceptive drugs in general,” he said.

Section 1688 of the amendment states that “nothing in this chapter [of the amendment] shall be construed to require or prohibit any person, or public or private entity, to provide or pay for any benefit or service, including the use of facilities, related to an abortion.”

Religious Institutions

The application to Catholic colleges is unclear. Thompson added that even if Title IX meant to cover contraceptives, “religious institutions could make a ‘right of conscience’ decision not to cover them.”

Title IX applies to any college that receives federal funds, and Reilly said this includes most Catholic colleges. Title IX does include the provision that exempts “practices in schools controlled by religious organizations whenever compliance with Title IX would be contrary to their religious beliefs,” but the exemption is not automatic. Schools must apply in writing for this exemption.

Title IX does not address the issue of religious institutions founded or run by lay individuals. Samuels said schools in this instance would not necessarily be exempt. “It would be on a case-bycase basis,” she said.

Samuels said she is not aware of additional schools being targeted for contraceptive coverage. Planned Parenthood and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice did not return phone calls for comment.

Thompson, who calls contraceptive coverage in schools an “issue that's on the front lines of the culture battle,” urges Catholic schools that are faced with this challenge to pursue legal representation. By not fighting, he said, “you just embolden the other side to become more aggressive.”

Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Next week: How pro-life groups such as Feminists for Life are countering efforts by pro-abortion groups to spread contraception and abortion providers on college campuses.