Sandra Fluke and Georgetown's Position of 'Neutrality'
President DeGioia clarifies university’s policy on contraception in letter, but won’t go public.
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
| Posted 4/26/12 at 7:59 AM
WASHINGTON —[THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED FOLLOWING THE RELEASE OF A STATEMENT TODAY BY GEORGETOWN'S PRESIDENT JOHN DEGIOIA ]
Sandra Fluke’s crusade to reverse the anti-contraception policies of Catholic universities has made life tough for Georgetown University’s president, John DeGioia, who has found himself besieged on all sides.
Over the past month, Fluke was invited to a public university forum to discuss her views, and DeGioia has received a petition with 750 names demanding that the university reverse its policy of denying contraception in the student health plan.
But he has also received a letter from more than 100 students and alumni requesting that he hold his ground and publicly correct what the signatories see as the mischaracterization of the university’s — and by extension the Church’s — stance on contraception.
Fluke’s impassioned attack on the university’s student-insurance coverage before Democratic House leaders in February has made the Washington, D.C., campus a high-profile forum for debating the federal contraception mandate. The ensuing discussion has revived past battles over the direction of an elite Jesuit university which, critics predict, will soon be indistinguishable from its Ivy League counterparts.
After Rush Limbaugh created a furor by repeatedly attacking Fluke on his radio talk show, DeGioia won applause for defending the law student’s right to speak out and for calling for a return to civil discourse.
But DeGioia has not responded publicly to Fluke’s charges, and her critics say that has allowed her skewed presentation of the university’s policies to go unchallenged.
[UPDATE: In a letter to the university community dated April 26 and released several hours after this Register story was posted, President DeGioia clarified several points raised by Fluke, though he did not mention her by name.
“I write to you regarding Georgetown’s health insurance and contraceptive coverage in our plans. Many members of our community have expressed different perspectives on this issue. I am grateful for the respectful ways in which you have shared your opinions,” read the letter.
DeGioia noted: “Students are not required to purchase their health insurance through Georgetown University and are free to acquire health insurance through a third party” and added that the university plan “does provide coverage for these prescriptions for students who require them for health reasons unrelated to birth control, as determined by a physician.”
He said the university would not change its “current practice for contraceptive coverage in our student health insurance for the coming year, as allowed for under the current rules issued by the United States Department of Health and Human Services."
“There will also be no change to the university’s approach to contraceptive coverage for employees for 2013,” read the statement.
But in an acknowledgement of the uncertainty posed by a future Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the new health bill, he noted that Georgetown “will be monitoring further regulatory and judicial developments related to the Affordable Care Act.” END OF UPDATE]
In February, when Fluke met with Democratic leaders to stake out her position on the HHS mandate, she criticized Georgetown’s policy of barring contraceptive coverage from the student health plan, asserting that it created a financial burden for students and made it difficult for those who needed contraception for therapeutic purposes to obtain a prescription.
A number of Georgetown alumni and conservative commentators have publicly disputed Fluke's account of students who suffered serious health problems as a result of the university's contraception policy, but DeGioia held back. Yet, in an April 10 letter to Georgetown University law professor Gregg Bloche, who sought the formation of a committee to reassess the health-plan policy, DeGioia implicitly challenged a number of Fluke’s public assertions, though he does not mention her name in the document.
The Register requested and received a copy of this letter, first cited this month in a Washington Post article. The story did not disclose the full text of the letter, and the university still has not posted it online.
DeGioia noted in his letter to Bloche that students at the law school are not required to purchase their insurance through the university health plan and thus have access to plans that provide contraception coverage.
“Students are free to purchase health insurance through a third-party provider. For example, Georgetown Law students may participate in an insurance plan provided by the American Bar Association,” he stated in his letter to Bloche.
He also confirmed that the university's plan “does provide coverage for prescription contraception for students who require it for health reasons unrelated to birth control, as determined by their physician.”
Further, he stressed that the university had no plans to alter its policy on contraception — unless required to do so by law.
“The student health-insurance plan offered through Georgetown is consistent with our Catholic and Jesuit identity and does not cover and has never covered prescription contraceptive birth control.”
DeGioia also referred to "conversations" between the administration and "senior leaders and students" from the law school that were conducted over the previous summer and addressed the same issue.
“As was stated then, we do not intend to change Georgetown’s long-standing practice of excluding contraception coverage for the purposes of birth control from its student health-insurance offerings, unless explicitly required to do so by law. Accordingly, I do not think it fitting to create a committee to consider this policy decision.”
Did Sandra Fluke drive that discussion? DeGioia was not available for comment and thus could not provide further context for his remarks. Nor was he able to answer whether he had future plans to address the confusion generated by Fluke’s remarks.
In her testimony before Democratic House leaders in February, Fluke, a past president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, told her audience: “I attend a Jesuit law school that does not provide contraceptive coverage in its student health plan. And just as we students have faced financial, emotional and medical burdens as a result, employees at religiously affiliated hospitals and institutions and universities across the country have suffered similar burdens.”
On April 16, Fluke received an opportunity to air her views on campus at “A Conversation With Sandra Fluke on Contraception Access,” which was organized by the university's student-run Lecture Fund and Public Policy Institute.
The event was closed to outside press and the public. But it prompted a group of about 100 “Concerned Students and Alumni of Georgetown” to issue its own letter to DeGioia that challenged the decision to organize a campus event that excluded any input from members of the university community that supported Catholic teaching on contraception and wanted Georgetown’s position to be explained and defended.
The signatories called on the university administration to clarify “its position on this fundamental issue of debate” and reminded administrators that Catholic teaching and pro-life work remained an essential part of the university’s legacy.
“[R]ecent activism on campus, such as heightened requests to alter the university’s policy on this issue, the presence of Planned Parenthood on campus and pressure for the university to immediately implement coverage for contraception in Georgetown’s student health-insurance plan, foregoing the allowed extension until August 2013, have caused concern among many students and alumni who support the university’s commitment to its Catholic identity,” read the letter.
Kevin Sullivan, a Georgetown student who helped to organize the petition, said it was time for the administration to step into the public eye. Sullivan backed DeGioia’s call for respectful dialogue, but the student contended that basic facts and First Amendment issues required equal attention.
“I am not quick to condemn the university’s neutral position as a way of advancing dialogue. Our letter was just asking the university to step out from a ‘behind the scenes’ position."
“We want them to clarify the student health-care policy after Sandra Fluke’s stories of students and employees being denied contraception for medical reasons,” said Sullivan, who will graduate in 2014 and is a member of the campus Knights of Columbus group that led the petition effort.
“It is very difficult for us to defend the university if we don’t have the official position. We are not asking the university to fight our battle, as far as student opinion is concerned,” said Sullivan, who reported that Catholic and pro-life groups have already organized events to address the issues.
He confirmed that his group has yet to receive a response from the administration, and he noted that the law school’s advocacy group, Students for Reproductive Justice, just issued a new letter demanding that the university approve contraception coverage in its student health plan by this summer, when non-objecting universities must demonstrate their compliance with the new law.
A Dangerous Place?
Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at the university’s Berkley Center, reviewed the contents of DeGioia’s letter to Bloche and said he was heartened that “Georgetown does not intend to change its policy of excluding contraceptive coverage for the purposes of birth control.”
But Farr expressed concern about a passage in DeGioia’s letter to Bloche that stated the university would not abandon its policy unless “required to do so by law.”
“In my view, if the HHS mandate, or any other action by government, attempts to force Georgetown University to abandon its most fundamental Catholic principles, the proper recourse is to challenge that mandate in court under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment,” said Farr, who has organized numerous forums on religious-freedom issues at Georgetown.
The issue at stake is not contraception, but the free exercise of a storied Catholic institution, said Farr. “Georgetown, both as a private American university and as a Catholic institution faithful to the Church’s own vigorous doctrine of religious freedom, should not accept an unconstitutional mandate from any government entity.”
Increasingly, as the debate exposes the deep fissures within a university community that embraces moral principles and scholarship that depart from Catholic teaching, DeGioia will find it tough to maintain a position of "neutrality" -- whatever influence he may be exerting behind the scenes.
In 2003, Cardinal Francis Arinze delivered a commencement address at Georgetown that challenged the university’s drift toward secularization and laid out the resulting contradictions and disunity that process would bring to campus life.
“[A]llow your religion to give your life its essential and major orientation. In our lives, religion is not something marginal, peripheral, additional, optional. My Catholic faith gives meaning and a sense of direction to my life. It gives it unity."
“Without it my life would be like an agglomeration of scattered mosaics,” stated the cardinal, whose strong defense of Catholic teaching on homosexuality prompted a slew of Georgetown faculty to walk out during his address.
Nine years later, Fluke has a place at the table, and Catholics and pro-lifers are clamoring for DeGioia to step up and defend the university's Catholic identity — a demand that will only intensify if the Supreme Court allows the new health law to stand. The Fluke controversy has tested the administration, but a genuine crisis lies ahead, sometime in the future.
“The Obama administration made it clear last August that free sterilization and contraception for college students was a top priority — so much so that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius quickly published the regulations so that they would be effective before student health plans go into effect in August 2012,” noted Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates that Catholic universities and colleges strengthen their religious identity.
Judging by Reilly’s predictions, even the most diplomatic university leader will be hard put to stay on the sidelines and engage in lowkey diplomacy to counter the federal government's effort to impos its will.
Stated Reilly, “A Catholic college with a moral campus environment could soon become, by government fiat, a dangerous place where students can get sterilized or go on the pill through a college health plan.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.
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