Abortion Standoff Between Santa Clara University President and Faculty

Faculty at the Jesuit university have called for a full restoration of ‘elective’ abortion coverage, but the university’s president is standing firm.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The faculty and president at Santa Clara University (SCU) are locked in a battle over abortion, and the university’s board of trustees has been asked to make the final call on the president’s decision to bring SCU health plans into closer alignment with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

The faculty senate voted 215 to 89 in mid-December to approve a resolution declaring “invalid” the action taken by SCU’s president, Jesuit Father Michael Engh, to bar the university from paying for elective abortion in its health plans. A total of 627 faculty members at SCU were eligible to vote.

Juliana Chang, SCU faculty senate president, told the Register that the faculty senate has asked the SCU board of trustees to overturn Father Engh’s decision.

“We’re waiting to hear from the trustees after their meeting,” before taking further action, Chang said.

At the beginning of October 2013, Father Engh sent out a letter to the faculty and staff of SCU, saying that his administration was seeking to “best align the range of medical benefits offered through the university with our institutional values.”

“However, our core commitments as a Catholic university are incompatible with the inclusion of elective abortion coverage in the university’s health plans,” he said.


Reason for the Change

The SCU president explained that the university’s health-care representatives and insurance carriers informed his administration that they are not required by California’s Departments of Managed Care and Insurance to provide “elective abortion.” However, he noted, the university will “continue to cover therapeutic abortions, contraception and other forms of reproductive health care mandated by the state of California.”

Appealing to the example of Pope Francis, Father Engh asked the faculty on either side of the issue of abortion to engage in a spirit of dialogue “with mutual regard and openness” and refrain from “mutual condemnations.”

But the decision prompted a backlash among SCU’s faculty, with many calling for restoration of “elective abortion” in SCU health plans and many others objecting that Father Engh made a unilateral decision violating the university’s system of shared governance.

After a month of discussions, Father Engh announced Nov. 19 that while his decision was final, the date for the policy change to take effect had been moved ahead a year to Jan. 1, 2015. He said the delay would allow the SCU Benefits Committee “sufficient time to explore options (such as a third-party administrator) beyond the university plans for faculty and staff members.”

“This delay will also afford us the opportunity to review state exchanges and modifications being clarified under the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “The Benefits Committee will consult broadly with the university community (including the president) before making any recommendations for alternative health-care options for the calendar year 2015.”

A third-party administrator is the route that Loyola Marymount University (LMU) chose after its own fight between President David Burcham and the faculty over dropping elective abortion coverage from LMU health plans. The board of trustees settled on that particular solution, confirming that LMU will no longer cover elective abortion in its health plans, but will help employees find alternative plans that do. However, some LMU Catholic faculty called the board’s compromise “ethically incoherent” with the Church’s belief in the human dignity of the unborn child.


Faculty Debate Rages

Father Engh’s decision, however, has both been praised and vilified by faculty on both sides of the debate, as well as fought publicly on the pages of the San Jose Mercury News.

In a scorching op-ed in the newspaper, SCU history professor Nancy Unger accused the president of imposing Catholic beliefs on faculty and staff and said many feared it was “part of a wider effort to allow private employers to impose their religious beliefs on employees.”

“‘Father knows best’ is not a compelling argument here, especially when one man denies hundreds of women access to a procedure that he could never need,” she said. “It’s also no principle on which to run a university.”

But David DeCosse, a religious studies professor at Santa Clara University, countered in his own op-ed that while Father Engh’s decision was complicated by “insufficient consultation” beforehand with faculty and staff, he “has rightly given priority to the dignity of the unborn.”

“Moreover, there is no inconsistency between respecting a person’s conscience and declining to assist that person (for instance, through contributions toward an insurance premium) in undertaking an action that one considers unjust,” he wrote.


The Next Step

Chang told the Register that the board of trustees’ decision would not be the last word for the faculty senate. She said that the faculty would also be appointing a couple of committees in response to President Engh’s decision.

“One of these committees will be studying what further actions can be taken if the trustees do not take action,” she said.

Father Engh’s spokeswoman, Deepa Arora, declined comment on the faculty senate’s action and instead referred back to the president’s statements of Nov. 19.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which evaluates Catholic institutions of higher education for their fidelity to the Church’s magisterium, said the issue at SCU should be “crystal clear.”

“Abortion is clearly contrary to Catholic teaching, and the university clearly puts itself out there as Catholic,” he said. “So the fact that anyone would question a personnel policy that refuses to fund abortion coverage is nonsensical.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.