Emily T. Wolf, Vice-President, Fordham Law Students for Reproductive Justice
This blog is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.
Fordham University is a Jesuit school. Because of this, students are not able to get birth control prescribed to them at the on-campus health centers. Fordham LSRJ wanted to provide Fordham students with a way to have access to doctors and birth control prescriptions. Here’s how we did it:
Step One: Identify a Specific Problem
The problem that we chose to tackle was the fact that there was no notice on the health center’s website that students would not be able to receive standard health care. There was no information that stated the health center is not able to prescribe birth control. Under the heading “Women’s Health,” the site stated, “routine gynecological exams are available.” If you searched further, you would find a question under the FAQs about scheduling a gynecological exam with some additional language:
“Remember, Fordham University is a Catholic and Jesuit University. As such, the physicians, nurse practitioners, and staff of the Health Center abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. Those interested in these directives can read them, usccb.org/about/doctrine/ethical-and-religious-directives/ (You will leave this website.)”
If you follow that link, you will need to click on the 43 page document, and read it. If you do a search for “contraception,” “birth control,” or “condom,” you will find zero matches within the document. If you search for “contraceptive,” you will find three matches, including text that states, “Catholic health institutions may not promote or condone contraceptive practices but should provide, for married couples and the medical staff who counsel them, instruction both about the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood and in methods of natural family planning.”
This was sufficiently vague and hidden such that students were not likely to be aware of this practice. It does not state that Fordham University forbids its nurse practitioners from prescribing birth control at its on-campus health centers. It is especially confusing given other language on the website that explains the health insurance offered by Fordham is required by New York law to cover birth control prescriptions. So students who need birth control will need to go to a different health care provider and incur additional costs.
Fordham LSRJ spoke to the Director of Student Health Services at Fordham, who explained that there is a medical exception to these birth control directives. So, theoretically, students who have health reasons for which birth control is standard treatment should be able to get a birth control prescription. However, this is not the case. We have information from many students who went to the health center with documented medical reasons to be on prescription contraceptives (endometriosis, ovarian cysts, dysmenorrhea) and were denied birth control. We have not heard from any student who was prescribed hormonal contraceptives for any reason.
Step Two: Identify Solutions
Our first solution was to ask the health center to update the website to reflect that students could not receive birth control prescriptions at Fordham. This sounded easy and entirely reasonable! We thought that it was a simple oversight on Fordham’s part not to include this information on their website. We were wrong.
We began by writing a letter to the president of the University in October, explaining the situation and how it could be resolved. We made this request from the position of consumers of Fordham’s health insurance looking for information, rather than as a group making demands. We explained that adequate notice of Fordham’s policies were imperative in order to allow students to make the best decision regarding their health care.
We received an answer to our letter about two weeks after we sent it. The response was basically that the University would look into making the communications and policies more clear. (The website was eventually updated on January 23.) Our follow-up questions to where these policies exist were met with a vague response stating the policy is reflected in the mission and tradition of the University.
At this point, we wanted to do something to draw attention to the issue and also something to help provide health care to the students who needed it. And so we arrived at our next solution: host a birth control clinic on or near campus!
Step Three: Use the Resources in the Reproductive Justice Community to Make It Happen
Of course, we didn’t know exactly where to start. We began by contacting the national LSRJ office, as well as some of our professors for names of doctors or nurse practitioners who would be willing to help us. We were eventually put into contact with the amazing Institute for Family Health here in New York. The doctors there were more than willing to come to Fordham to put on a clinic that would provide health care access to students. They were also able to do this at no cost, which was a great help, since Fordham had asked us not to use any University funds for this event.
We also held our event just off campus at the New York Institute of Technology. Fordham would not allow this event on campus. NYIT was generous to provide us with a perfect space for the clinic without cost.
So we had an idea for an event (check), event space (check), doctors to prescribe birth control and answer questions (check), food (check – paid for by an anonymous donor), and prizes for reproductive rights jeopardy (check – thanks LSRJ!). Now we just needed to let people know about the event. We went to the press, submitting dozens of tips to any news source we could think of, which ended up being very successful. The attention from the press led to even more support for our event, and we were able to get literature and support from other reproductive rights organizations, such as NARAL and Catholics for Choice.
During the event-planning process we ran into some roadblocks. We weren’t able to put up posters around the law school advertising the event (our posters were not approved by Student Affairs), so we emailed the student body and asked students to put up mini-posters on their lockers that line the hallways of the law school. We got an amazing response to this, and soon the school was full of posters anyway. We also had some difficulties with our first space that we rented for the clinic. We chose a space in a building just off campus that housed several floors of Fordham classrooms. We thought that it would be convenient since students were already familiar with the space. After we signed a rental contract, the organization refused to let us use the space. This was frustrating, and meant a time-consuming scramble for a new space, but we got it done.
So, how did it go?
Our birth control clinic and sexual health fair was a huge success! Over one hundred people came to support us and forty women received birth control prescriptions. The students who came engaged in small discussions around the room, and it was great to see many of the issues surrounding birth control at Fordham being hashed out. It was also amazing to provide answers to questions that students had about Fordham policies or anything else, and to direct students to other resources when we did not know the answers. We were so happy to have helped these students receive health care that they may not have received otherwise.
Our event drew some local and national attention, largely due to the timing of the Department of Health and Human Services debating whether to extend the religious exemption to include religious universities in November and determining against this decision this January. Our event was discussed in diverse media sources, such as Fox News, the New York Times, the Fordham Observer (here and here), Jezebel, RH Reality Check (here and here and here for podcast), Above the Law, the New York Daily News, Slate, the Huffington Post, the Daily Mail, and the National Catholic Register, among others. We were interviewed for some of these publications, but not all. In some cases, the authors of the articles misunderstood our event, and we made an effort to contact those authors to correct them in order to ensure our message was clear. It was really interesting to read about our event in these sources, and to read the many (positive and negative) comments generated by those articles.
We had our event attendees fill out a brief exit survey, which was helpful in determining how many people attended and the issues that mattered to them. We received a lot of positive feedback from the students who attended, and got some great ideas for future birth control events. For example, we heard several comments asking for “more diverse types and sizes of condoms” and “guest speakers for next time.” My personal favorite piece of feedback was from an undergraduate who stated she said, “I posted about the event on my Facebook wall, and then got a message from my father, telling me to ‘grow up.’ Being conscious about my sexual health is growing up!”
This January, the University did update the website to address some of our concerns about the lack of clarity on Fordham’s policy. We are glad that some progress was made. The website now discusses birth control in two places – once in the FAQs and once in the Women’s Health Care section, where it is explicitly stated that “[n]either contraceptives nor birth control are distributed or prescribed on premises as a standard practice. Student Health Services does make limited exceptions for the treatment of medical conditions accompanied by supporting documentation.” The language here is very clear, which we appreciate. However, we still want to know what medical conditions are considered, of what severity, and what documentation students need if they have a medical reason to be prescribed oral contraceptives. Given the requirement of documentation from and outside doctor, we also want to know why the people treating us aren’t allowed to make these diagnoses themselves. We hope to continue working with Fordham to clarify these policies and educate students about the policies as much as possible.
Our impressions of this process left us in awe of the support that we received from the reproductive justice community. We got many emails from students, professors, and alumni who were behind us. We also were happy to see that it was really easy to put together the event with the support of the community. But best of all, we helped Fordham women receive health care.