LMU Board Splits the Baby on Abortion Coverage

In the face of faculty opposition to dropping coverage completely, the Jesuit college’s trustees opt to allow a third-party plan to provide elective employee abortions.

LOS ANGELES — The board of trustees at Loyola Marymount University has handed down a Solomonic decision in the controversy over the university’s abortion coverage that may end up leaving few happy. Although the board confirmed LMU will no longer provide health plans that cover elective abortion, the Jesuit university will help employees find alternative plans that do.

The board held an Oct. 7 meeting to discuss the decision to drop elective abortion coverage from all LMU health plans starting Jan. 1, 2014.  Board chairman Kathleen Aikenhead and LMU's president, David Burcham, revealed that the board had ratified that decision, but stated that it would not affect coverage for “therapeutic abortions, contraception and other forms of reproductive care mandated by the state of California.”

The board also added that LMU would select a “Third Party Administrator (TPA)-managed plan” for employees seeking abortion coverage.

“The employee will be responsible for the entirety of the cost associated with this additional coverage and, thus, no LMU dollars will be used in paying for this additional coverage,” the letter from Aikenhead and Burcham stated.

It added that the human resources department would contact faculty and staff over the next 10 days to discuss the details of LMU health plans and would also provide information about the alternative TPA-managed plan covering elective abortion.

“We acknowledge that the issue of abortion is extremely complicated and encompasses varied and competing values that often leave no one happy,” Burcham and Aikenhead stated. “Nonetheless, we believe that the right to life and dignity for every human being is a fundamental part of Catholic beliefs (all other rights flow from this primary right to life and dignity) and that this vision needs to be evidenced in LMU’s policies and procedures.”


A Hesitant Step Forward?

Christopher Kaczor, an LMU professor of philosophy, told the Register that he welcomed the decision to drop abortion coverage from LMU’s principal health plans as “a good step forward,” but he had concerns over the university arranging an alternative way to provide for abortion coverage.

“What they are doing is akin to saying: ‘I think abortion is intrinsically evil and should never be done, so I am not going to drive you to the abortion clinic. But let me arrange for my brother to take you to the abortion clinic. If you give him a few dollars, it should be fine.’ That position doesn’t really seem to make moral sense,” he said.

RenewLMU, an association of alumni dedicated to improving LMU’s Catholic identity, reacted with dismay to the decision. RenewLMU sent its own petition to the board, urging them to follow the guidance of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education, and follow the example of other Catholic colleges and universities in excluding abortion coverage from their health plans.

A letter from RenewLMU to trustees said the decision to drop abortion coverage from LMU’s standard health plans but make it available through a TPA-managed plan was “a distinction without a difference.”

“The board has basically said, ‘While we can not make abortion directly available to our employees, we will arrange for another party to make it available on our behalf.’ This rationale is mere rhetoric not worthy of a great university,” stated the alumni letter.

James Hanink, the LMU philosophy professor whose inquiries revealed that LMU had been offering elective abortion in its health plans, argued that the LMU board’s decision to direct abortion-minded employees toward a TPA-managed plan was a compromise solution already rejected by the U.S. Catholic bishops in the fight over the Health and Human Services' mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, female sterilization and potentially abortifacient drugs.

“The board’s decision leaves us with Burcham-Sebelius protocol,” Hanink said. “It is ethically incoherent.”

“The university is paying for abortion, and they are doing so at a time in which the bishops have again and again asked for support for religious freedom that would allow Catholic institutions not to pay for contraception and abortion,” he said.

The Register contacted President Burcham’s office but did not receive a response by publication time.


Faculty Unrest

The Los Angeles Loyolan, LMU’s student newspaper, reported that more than 180 faculty and staff had signed a petition opposing the cancellation of abortion coverage in LMU health plans. The figure and list of names came from Dermot Ryan, associate professor of English, and Nora Murphy, associate professor of psychology, who were protesting the move outside the building where the board was conducting its meeting.

One letter written to the board by some faculty — obtained by the Register — argued that dropping abortion coverage over the university’s respect-for-life concerns, would violate social-justice principles, impose economic burdens on women and their families, particularly “the lowest paid women on campus, who are also most likely women of color.”

The letter also alleged that the decision would violate employees’ “freedom of conscience” and harm the university’s ability to recruit a diverse faculty.

Some of the protesting staff were clearly displeased with the board’s compromise decision. Anna Muraco, an associate professor of sociology, told the local Daily Breeze that she was unhappy with the board’s decision to exclude elective abortion coverage from health plans. Muraco, who co-authored an article on RH Reality Check addressing the Cardinal Newman Society’s coverage of the LMU abortion debate, said the LMU decision “presupposes that Catholicism has one viewpoint about abortion or health care.”

Muraco argued the decision disproportionately affected women and believed the higher premiums of the TPA-managed plan would make a financial impact on lower-paid employees. She also said the decision undercut LMU’s commitment to “diversity and religious plurality.”

“Don’t be surprised if somewhere down the line there will be an attempt to restrict sterilization coverage or limits on services for transgendered Americans or domestic-partner benefits,” she said.

Other issues, however, for the faculty were also at play that did not touch directly on the moral issue of abortion coverage.

Jennifer Pate, president of LMU’s faculty senate, previously told the Register that the faculty senate’s main issues of contention were that the administration’s chosen route to resolve the issue of abortion coverage bypassed normal procedure (going through the university’s comprehensive-benefits committee) and that not much attention was given to the underlying reasons motivating the decision or its relationship to academic freedom.

The board’s letter appears to address those concerns. The letter from Burcham and Aikenhead announced that the decision about the abortion coverage would be “discussed by the university Comprehensive Benefits Committee” and requested the committee’s consultation be reported to the board about “benefits that will be available for 2015 and beyond.”

Psychology professor Murphy, however, told CBS Los Angeles that she still felt LMU had not lived up to a Jesuit ideal of encouraging “exploration of different ideas and a larger communication and dialogue.”

She said, “Most of this process has not felt like a dialogue. It has felt like just coming down from high.”


Academic Freedom

On academic freedom, the board of trustees’ letter quoted Pope Francis’ comments that thinking with the Church “must not reduce the bosom of the universal Church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

But Hanink said the letter’s reference to Pope Francis was “papal cherry-picking” and a “red herring.”

“Surely the Jesuit trustees are aware of the Holy Father’s recent rejection of the destruction of the unborn child as reflective of ‘a culture of waste,’” he said, referencing comments the Pope made Sept. 20 at the Vatican.

Hanink said, “In this country, we are already into 55 million abortions. Either the university at administrative levels is either unwilling to address this or they are simply ethically incompetent.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.