Just months after going back and forth over whether it should stop offering birth control coverage in its health plans, the University of Notre Dame will make two big changes to its healthcare policy.
The switch was announced in a letter sent by Father John Jenkins, the school president, on Wednesday. According to Jenkins, Notre Dame has decided to ban third-party providers from including coverage of “abortion-inducing” contraceptives in its insurance plans and the school will also start offering coverage for “simple contraceptives” in its self-funded health plan.
The arrangement is an effort to reconcile Notre Dame’s Catholic values with its commitment to diversity within the university community. While Jenkins called the decision “complex” in an interview with The Atlantic, the ambiguity of his letter has left students like senior Emily Garrett confused and frustrated.
“I can see how they thought, ‘We need to appease both sides.’ But in appeasing both sides, you also leave this gaping hole in the middle of what does that entail,” she said. “Where is the line drawn when it comes to actual contraceptive access on campus?”
Garrett believes that birth control is a crucial component of women’s healthcare. (She is the co-founder of the student group Feminist ND, but spoke with Refinery29 on her own behalf and not in an official capacity.) She said that it’s also unclear why the school decided to switch positions again on the issue and why it’s doing it in February of all times.
It’s not the first time the private Catholic university in Indiana has been at the center of a debate surrounding birth control. For the past couple of years, the school offered co-pay free contraception through a third-party system for religious employers that was implemented by the Obama administration in 2012. But it had also long sought to drop birth control coverage entirely, engaging in various lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
And last fall, the school announced in a letter to its faculty, staff and students that it would cover contraception only in cases where it was used as medical treatment and not for pregnancy prevention. At the time, Notre Dame was believed to be the first major institution to take advantage of the Trump administration’s decision to roll back the Obamacare contraception mandate. But after pushback from the campus community, the change was reversed and the school moved on from the birth control debate — until now.
About 17,000 people — a group that includes faculty, staff students, and their respective family members — are covered by the university’s health plans. According to Jenkins’ letter, more details of the policy change, including a list of which contraceptives will be covered, will be available in March. He also said the changes will be implemented for employees on July and for students in August.
Refinery29 reached out to the Notre Dame administration to ask what drove the school’s decision and what that would mean for those covered under the school’s health insurance plans. A spokesperson replied: “Father Jenkins’ letter to the campus community speaks for itself.” No other details were offered.
Students like Garrett, who want access to contraception to be easier, were disssapointed by Notre Dame’s move. But so were other parts of the student body, who feel the use birth control is in direct violation of Catholic teachings.
As a Catholic University, Notre Dame is called to uphold Church teaching and promote a culture of life.
According to the student newspaper The Irish Rover, the campus club Students for Child-Oriented Policies released a statement saying that while it applauds certain parts of the policy change, students were also troubled by the fact “that the university has made the shocking decision to even more closely entangle itself in and become the primary agent of the provision of contraceptives.”
Sophomore Colleen Ballantyne agrees. She told Refinery29 that she is proud of attending Notre Dame, but she was also disappointed by the new policy. (Ballantyne is the vice president of the student group Community Outreach for Right to Life, but spoke with Refinery29 on her own behalf and not in an official capacity.)
“Had this policy been enacted at a secular institution, I would not be as disappointed as I am with this new policy because Notre Dame is not a secular institution,” she said. “As a Catholic University, Notre Dame is called to uphold Church teaching and promote a culture of life. This new policy fails to do this on our campus.”
“In my opinion there are not adequate resources that promote a culture of life for students that find themselves in unplanned and crisis pregnancies. The entire Notre Dame community is called to support women through pregnancy no matter the circumstance and I would love to see more resources on campus to effectively do this,” she said. “I would especially like to see better child care options for parenting students and more housing options for pregnant and parenting students, especially undergraduate students.”
Meanwhile, Garrett felt that the language in the letter showed some progress in the university’s position, but the actual changes to the policy were a step backwards.
“We’re very glad that they recognize that people make the choice to use contraception, but not always need contraception for health conditions. That they voluntarily, ethically, morally make this choice,” she said. “But then, they go on and kind of defend the Catholic faith by saying, ‘We’re not going to support these abortifacients’ — which don’t really exist.”
“Abortifacients” — or “abortion-inducing drugs,” as described by Jenkins — are terms used by conservative groups to describe certain types of contraception, including IUDs and the morning-after pill. Their opposition to these contraceptives rests on the claim that a pregnancy begins at fertilization, instead of at implantation (as recognized by physicians and even the federal government). So, these groups argue, if a contraceptive interferes with the fertilized egg’s ability to implant to the uterus, that’s actually an abortion. (An article in the New England Journal of Medicine on August said these claims are “alternative science” and false.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of long-acting reversible contraceptives such as IUDs and implants increased five-fold among women of reproductive age between 2002 and 2013. And due in large part to expanded access to these highly-effective types of contraceptives, the rate of unintended pregnancies in the U.S. is at a 30-year low.
“So many of my friends have gotten an IUD or want to get one. There’s people that want that type of convenience, to know that you’re covered without having to remember to take a pill,” she said. “This policy will take away those options for a reason that is not medically-proven. That’s a restriction of choice.”
Garrett added, “They are saying, ‘We’ll pay for your choice to do this, but you can only choose the options that we still believe in.’ So until we have comprehensive access to contraception on campus with our health insurance, we’re still going to be frustrated and a little angry.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Notre Dame sophomore Colleen Ballantyne.
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