Top 5 Tips I’d Give My First-Year Self

Sasha Young, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16 Northwestern University School of Law)

This time last year I was reading a million “Top 10 Tips for 1Ls” lists and feeling like most of them were generic and aimed at the masses. So instead of speaking to all 1Ls, I’m going to speak to myself as a 1L. After making it through that experience, here are my top 5 tips for myself this time last year. Here are the honest things I would tell myself, a racial minority from a lower socioeconomic background at a T14 school, who was interested in social justice and not the pipeline to big law.

  1. Don’t talk to the white people about racial stuff. I didn’t come in to school very fixated on race, and I had no idea how much racial tension I’d encounter. I’m not saying that white people won’t understand or be sympathetic. But racism in law school can be very smartly hidden and excused by “logic” and especially competition. You never know who thinks that you’re just there because of affirmative action and not because you “earned” it. Save yourself the distress, and go talk to the diversity counselor or a professor that teaches something like “race and the criminal justice system.” 

  1. It’s not your responsibility to educate anyone else. For every person who tells you that they “wouldn’t want to be embarrassed to not have earned their spot,” there will be a very well-intentioned White Savior randomly telling you, “It’s so great that you [people] are here.” You’re not there to provide the “minority perspective,” or to teach the rest of the student body about racism. You’re not there to “create a diverse educational experience” for the kids who only have only ever been around people like them. You’re there to learn contracts.brb-saving-africa
  1. Get your tools ready, ya trailblazer. The machine is not-so-gently pushing you through the big law pipeline. So if that’s not part or all of your plan, you’re going to have to figure it out yourself. Surely there are schools out there that support public-interest folks better than others, but you should still talk to everyone. Find as many options as you can. Google. PSJD. Look up attorneys who do what you want to do, and see what steps they took.
  1. Don’t knock it. I know you’re suuuuure that you’re not interested in big law. But trust me; you don’t want to close any doors just yet. A happy work life isn’t just about your substantive work; your work environment is equally (if not more) important. Plus, big law opens some doors in the public interest world, just like it closes others. I had many attorneys tell me that their organizations looked skeptically at candidates who came from big law. Other attorneys told me their organizations like candidates with some big law background because they are well-trained. You’re just going to have to figure out your own path.
  1. If you want to leave, that’s ok. It’s too much time, energy, and money to spend on something you hate. If you want to take a year off, go between 1L and 2L (but ask about 2L OCI eligibility first). If you decide you don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll find a way to pay off that year of loans. You are not stuck, and if you think you are, you’ll only hate it more. This is still your life; it doesn’t start later.2qklzz4

Good luck, 1L self. Remember, you’re the shit and don’t let anyone tell you different.

LSReJuvenated after the Annual Leadership Institute

Grace Ramsay, LSRJ Summer Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Intern (’16, Smith College)

Ever experience “social justice burnout”?  When your day-to-day is filled with researching and discussing painful topics, it can feel daunting, or even impossible, to continue in RJ work.  The 2014 Leadership Institute gave me new energy to approach the rest of this internship and to continue my work in reproductive justice.  After a whirlwind weekend starting and ending with the cute/ creepy Virgin America safety music video, the LSRJ national office is back in Oakland.  The LSRJ seventh annual Leadership Institute, hosted at George Washington University School of Law, was beyond successful from both the national office side and the attendees’ side.  I was excited to represent an organization and wear the “LSRJ hat,” while also wearing the “attendee hat” which  meant that I could check in with folks who I could consider my peers for honest feedback of the conference.  Everyone I had the chance to talk to loved the weekend as much as I did! Here were my five favorite parts of the 2014 LSRJ Leadership Institute:

1) Panels and workshops.  Of course, this was the main content of the LI, and I had the opportunity to sit in on several workshops as the point-person.  During the presentations – which varied from ways to message around abortion, to a how-to for strategic LSRJ chapter planning, to an introduction to policymaking – I got to absorb knowledge from experts across the spectrum of RJ advocacy.  Judging from how engaged our attendees were, they also appreciated the breadth of knowledge that they can now take back to their LSRJ chapters.

2) Experiencing behind the scenes facilitation.  There’s so much that goes into facilitating a conference, and I only played a small part in making sure this LI went smoothly.  Working with the national office to ensure every detail was set made me appreciate how much forethought and planning has to go into organizing successful events.  From handing water bottles to speakers, to timing each workshop, I was only able to successfully complete my part of the work because of the effort that Keely and Samantha had already put in.  Y’all are awesome!

3) Giving a presentation to a large audience.  Part of my responsibility at the LI was presenting one of LSRJ’s event toolkits to the chapter leaders.  Because of the preparation work we all put in beforehand, I felt 100% comfortable and in control of the materials I presented.  As I said to my mom on the phone afterwards, now I understand why you’re supposed to prepare presentations instead of winging it!  I’m hoping that my presentation of the sex-ed event toolkit, along with Gavin and Sasha’s event toolkit presentations, helped chapter leaders better understand how to put on successful events on their campuses.

4) Connecting with LSRJ folks. One person I spoke with this weekend called the LSRJ network a “family.”  She said the term networking is too scary and inaccessible to describe the connections formed during the LI.  I appreciated that so many law students were willing to engage with me – a lowly undergrad!- and suggest different organizations I should check out in the upcoming semester.  Like I said before, I was lucky enough to both represent internsLSRJ and interact with attendees in a more interpersonal sense.

5) Bonding with the office!  There’s something about flying across the coast that makes a national office closer.  I can’t speak for all of us, but I have the feeling everyone had a more-than-fun time together, especially us interns.  Yes, this is a Snapchat:

Thanks to everyone who attended the 2014 Leadership Institute, and I hope that everyone there found it beyond worthwhile!

18.7 percent is not enough

Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)

This month marks the start of the second session of the 113th Congress — the most diverse Congress in U.S. history.   My own home state of New Hampshire played a big role in this distinction having sent the only ever all female delegation to Washington, D.C.  Hawaii is a close second, having sent three women as part of its four-member delegation. However, with eighty-one House members and twenty Senators, women still account for only 18.7% of Congressional members.[1]

Despite their comparatively low numbers, women have increasingly gained recognition for their leadership on a variety of issues.  Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kelley Ayotte (R-NH) and others garnered attention for their role in last year’s budget negotiations and are largely credited for saving our country from the dreaded fiscal cliff.  Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the voice for family unity and women’s equality during the immigration debate introducing a number of amendments including one to allocate 30,000 residency cards for traditionally female employment, employment that goes largely unrecognized in our current system.

The Shaheen amendment, passed late in 2012, and named for Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), ended the decades long ban on insurance coverage for abortion services for military rape survivors. The attention to sexual violence in the military has only grown over the past year thanks to the efforts of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).  Although not always in agreement – only eighteen of the twenty female Senators are pro-choice – the women serving in Congress are a force in their own right.  A recent study found that regardless of their party, women are “thirty-one percent more effective than men at advancing legislation.”

As we embark on the second session of this historic Congress, it is tempered by the fact that half of all states have never elected a woman to the Senate and in the words of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them.”


True Story: I Volunteered As An Abortion Clinic Escort

Caitlin Bancroft, Guest Blogger, (’15, George Washington University Law School)

This article was published by The Frisky.

“Look at me. Look in my eyes. Let me tell you why I’m here. I’m here because I figure that the women who come here have already agonized over this decision enough. They have considered their own circumstances, looked at all the options, and come to the best possible decision that they can make. Once they get here, they deserve support. So please don’t listen to those people, because they aren’t listening to you. Only you know your story, and only you have the right to tell it.”

Clinic escorts are never supposed to say “good morning.” We are taught to never presume anything about the women and men whom we guide into the clinic, including however good or bad their morning is going. I usually ask them if they had trouble finding the clinic or I make a generic comment about the weather. During these raw moments of extreme vulnerability, I would rather that they judge my clichés than focus on the self-righteous hate speech emanating from the protestors. Most of the time, I am able to get them safely from their cars to the front door of the health center with little more than comments about traffic and Google maps. But sometimes it’s not that simple.

On my first day as a clinic escort, I was horrified by the cruel protestors. New to the game as I was, I couldn’t understand how anyone could see a scared woman and feel the need to publicly shame her. Their behavior was appalling. Their humanity was questionable. But for the most of the morning, I did not focus on the fear-mongering extremists. I wanted to help the women and no one else mattered. My selective deafness worked well for most of the day, until a young woman came out of the clinic and went to her car to smoke a cigarette.

She had barely taken her first puff before the anti-choicers surrounded her like demonic soul suckers. A woman with sign covered in doll heads kept saying, “We know the best doctors. You need to see our doctors before you do this.” But the man with the grotesque sign kept yelling, “What’s the real truth? Why are you really doing this to your child?” When I got to the woman’s car I began to understand the impetus behind the protestors screaming. This young woman was shaking and repeatedly telling the protestors her diagnosis. She had visited multiple high risk OBGYNs, and every single one had told her that she wouldn’t survive this pregnancy.

I did the only thing that made sense at the time. I put my body in between her and the determined zealots. When I caught her eye, I was able to calm her down by telling her the reasons why I chose to become a clinic escort. Once she had calmed down enough to speak coherently, she began to tell me her story. She already had a very young son. He was healthy now, but he was very sick when he was born. In fact, the delivery had left her in a coma for a month and her son was in a coma for three months. She loved him so much. So when she found herself pregnant again, she didn’t want an abortion. But her doctors had made it very clear that another pregnancy would kill her. Despite her desire to continue the pregnancy, she couldn’t risk leaving her son motherless.

For the entire time that she bared her soul, the protestors screamed at her. They called her selfish and sadistic. They told her that she was evil. They called her a murderer.

When she finished her cigarette, I walked her back to the clinic doors. On the stairs in front of the clinic, she reached out and squeezed my hand.

Whenever I feel like this work is too much to bear, I remember her. Not because she “needed” me, and not because she was upset. I remember her because during one of the hardest moments of her life, she looked me in the eye and thanked me for my compassion. As if my sympathy was a gift, and not a natural human response. Empathy should be an expectation, not a shock.

I stand with women because caring is still radical.

And if it were me, I couldn’t do it alone.

Finding Balance as a Mom and a Professional. It’s Personal!

Josie Sustaire, Resident Blogger (’14, University of Oregon School of Law)

I was raised by my stay-at-home mom.  She told me on numerous occasions that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up.  I believed her.  I grew up adoring Punky Brewster, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.  These were girls who refused to fit a mold.  However, I mostly clung to these role models to avoid the other predominant role models I saw on television shows: the moms.  Family Ties, Growing Pains, Roseanne.  I was inundated with images of the stay-at-home mom.  I knew early on, however, that I did not want to be a stay-at-home mom and I disliked the idea that the yardstick against which I would be measured was the at-home mom model.  I know I’m not the only girl to have been raised by parents who told her she could be anything she wanted to be nor am I the first girl to not want to be a stay-at-home mom.  So if this is true, then why are there so few women in leadership roles?  Well, I don’t have the answer, but I have a hunch.

Two of my classmates recently sent me two different news stories addressing this very issue.  The first was an article about Marissa Mayer, who recently made a command decision at Yahoo! to put an end to telecommuting.  This decision has sparked fierce debates (seriously, just Google Marissa Mayer and telecommuting).  This article makes it clear from its title “Marissa Mayer is killing telecommuting, and that’s a good thing,” that Marissa Mayer’s decision was the right one.

For starters, I fundamentally disagree with this approach.  As a woman, I despise when women (the author is a woman) tell other women the “right” and “wrong” way to either parent or run a company because, of course, you can’t do both.  Intelligent, successful women should be fully aware of the fact that what works for one doesn’t work for all.  What I found most troubling is that the author completely ignores the fact that Mayer, despite having axed telecommuting, just had a private nursery built next to her office, an option not available to the other women in her building.  So, as much as I can appreciate the focus on actual interpersonal communication and face-to-face interactions among staff, I find it difficult to look up to a woman who sets two separate standards, one for her and one for all other women below her.

The second article sent to me was a story about Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook.  Sandberg, in her 60 Minutes interview points the finger at women.  She believes that women are their own worst enemies and that women have put up their own barriers to success.  Now, I’ll agree that there are undoubtedly women who make certain decisions that aren’t the pursuit of reaching the top rung of the ladder but I won’t stand with Sandberg and point the finger at one group.  We are ALL to blame for this.  The lack of female leaders isn’t attributable to just some women making some choices, I would wager that it is much more likely to be attributed to a society that still measures a women’s success in a 1950’s framework.

I have a number of titles, at school and at home.  Wife, mommy, part-time chef, partly-part-time housekeeper, student, group leader, mentor, friend.  I wear each of them proudly and at times I am slow to switch gears and I make mistakes.  I’m not perfect.  But I manage and I would like to think I manage fairly well.  I want to succeed just as much as I want my husband, marriage, and my children to succeed.  I don’t feel compelled to choose one title over another.  In fact, when the media, movies, or Momsters make me feel as if I do, I get angry.  I asked a Federal court judge recently who raised five children how to combat the sneers and snide comments from the PTA moms (aka Momsters).  She leaned in and whispered, “You don’t need to worry about them because you know.  You know about you and your family and they don’t.”  At first, I thought, “what the hell kind of advice is that?”  But now I know what she meant.  I am the only one who truly knows what works for me, not the Momsters, or my classmates, professors, advisors, the media, movies, or even powerful female executives. 

Oregon: Land of Complacency?

Josie Sustaire (’14, University of Oregon School of Law)

Help me understand this.  Reproductive rights and women’s rights in general have been the focus for certain groups in certain areas of government.  And these groups have taken a certain stance on these rights.  It would seem that now, more than ever, women and those concerned for the realization of reproductive justice need to work harder than ever to ensure that barriers aren’t placed between people and their access to the reproductive services they need.  How then can I be surrounded by so much complacency?  How can students attending law school on a famously progressive campus shrug their shoulders at the mention of a student group named Law Students for Reproductive Justice?  I want to believe that their shrugs are due to the fact that prior to law school they worked for non-profits, politicians, and national organizations whose top priority was protecting reproductive freedoms.  Therefore they’re shrugging, rather than a sign of complacency, is more of a “preaching to the choir” response by an old friend of RJ.  But seriously, who am I kidding.  This isn’t the likely backstory.  More likely, I think, is that they are shrugging not because of their tireless efforts working in the trenches but because of their own complacency with the status quo and perhaps a slight fear of coming across as too gunner-y by sounding off at their 1L events about RJ.

Call it motherly instincts, but my gut reaction to our school’s lack of outspoken, enthusiastic reproductive rights and justice advocates has caused me to worry about the future for my young classmates.  Granted, it is only week five of school.  And granted we are in Oregon, a state that for the most part has avoided legislation that places major obstacles between people and their realization of RJ.  But I’m of the opinion that our state dodging the bullet, so to speak, wasn’t accidental; it was the result of diligent work by countless advocates.  And that was precisely what I was hoping to recruit and help shape in our LSRJ chapter this year: diligent RJ advocates.  So, let’s do this 1Ls, let’s show up and start working…because we still have lots of work to do!

Reproducing Reproductive Justice at Home

Ash Moore, University of Oklahoma

The Leadership Institute just became a memory. After two days of talking about reproductive health, rights, and justice we are heading back to our home schools carrying with us what we learned about the issues and policies.

As I was waiting to board my plane (wearing my new LSRJ shirt), a soon to be 1L came up to me and asked, “so what, exactly, does reproductive justice mean? Like, you care about abortions and stuff?”

I couldn’t help but smile. I gave her the one-minute-or-less elevator speech I practiced in a workshop earlier today, wrote down my contact information, and the contact information for a California chapter leader I met this weekend. When she walked away, I realized I had learned so much more this weekend than the status of abortion laws in different states.

The LI spent most of the weekend teaching us universal leadership and messaging skills. It was truly one of the most amazing programs I’ve ever experienced. The national organization’s back seat approach to the individual chapters’ agenda and structure speaks volumes about their faith in their members. While it’s scary to be imbued with so much responsibility, there are so many amazing tools and resources available not only from the national organization, but from fellow chapters as well.

It’s nice to know you’re never alone. Especially when you’re leaving a place of acceptance and open discussion, and going back to a place that recently passed draconian laws to restrict a woman’s control over her own body.

Doula-ing the Movement Forward

JoAnna Smith, Emory University

During the first day at the Leadership Institute, we discussed how the reproductive justice model differs from other frameworks for reproductive rights or social justice.

It made me think back to when I was working as a labor doula before law school.  A labor doula is a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a woman before, during and just after birth.  A doula learns that she is there to help the woman have a safe and satisfying childbirth as the woman defines it. It is not the role of the doula to discourage the laboring woman from her choices, nor to project their own values and goals onto her.

As a doula, I was required to listen more than I talked.  I learned to encourage women to ask questions and get information rather than doing it for her.  I learned that I couldn’t possibly understand all the circumstance of another woman’s life that drive her to make the decisions she does, but that I should do everything in my power to hear her and help her achieve those choices.  I learned to work behind the scenes, providing valuable skills and resources when needed, but never taking the spotlight away from those who really mattered: the woman, her family, and supporters.  Outside of the birthing room, I advocated for changes in a complex system of institutions, laws, and circumstances that make it difficult for women to have the birth they knew was best for them.

What I heard during the RJ 101 session made me think hard about the role of an RJ lawyer.  In law school we learn how to be the interpreter of the law and the one who gives advice.  We are taught to stand up in front and speak confidently.  We are taught to be, or at least act like, the experts our education prepares us to be.

But the reproductive justice framework asks us to focus on the intersections of race, class, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender expression, immigration status, and ability and how they impact access, agency, and autonomy in shaping one’s reproductive destiny.   It shifts our role from achieving a right or winning a case for someone to one that requires us to listen and to act only once we attempt to understand those we serve.  It asks us to work with communities as allies, strategists, and advisors to overcome the complex systems, laws, and circumstances that make it difficult for people to have the reproductive destiny they know is best for them.

We must be doulas in the reproductive justice movement.

I am incredibly honored to be at the L I with so many soon-to-be lawyers who will continue to doula this movement, and those it affects, forward with compassion, grace, and integrity.

Fordham LSRJ’s Statement to the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform

Cross-posted with permission from Fordham LSRJ

The House Oversight Committee refused to let Sandra Fluke of Georgetown LSRJ testify as a minority witness at today’s ridiculously titled hearing, “Lines Crossed:  Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

You can read Sandra’s excellent statement here.  We are with you Georgetown women!

This is the statement Fordham LSRJ submitted for the hearing record:

Putting the men in "Women's Health"

We are students of the Fordham University School of Law in New York City.  Fordham is a Jesuit-affiliated university, however, our student health insurance covers contraception as required by New York State law.  The New York Women’s Health and Wellness Act was passed in 2002 with the goal of promoting women’s health and ending gender discrimination.  From our perspective here at Fordham, the suggestion that requiring the non-discriminatory prescription coverage we already enjoy is some kind of new and unprecedented encroachment on religious freedom seems strange and disingenuous.

The New York law is not a violation of religious freedom.  Fordham didn’t have to go out of business or stop providing prescription coverage.  Our institution was able to accept that religiously affiliated entities that want to sell products in the marketplace like insurance and federally subsidized education must meet the same quality standards as non-religious organizations.

Unfortunately, even though we have contraception coverage thanks to the protections of New York state law, Fordham students still do not have access to affordable contraception.  This is because our health centers, where students with University insurance are meant to receive our primary and gynecological care, will not prescribe contraception.  So, whether a student needs contraception to prevent pregnancy, treat a medical condition or both – she has to pay a $100 deductible to visit a doctor off-campus for a prescription – even if she already underwent a gynecological exam on-campus in the mistaken belief that Fordham provided standard care.  One hundred dollars on top of a monthly copayment is a significant barrier to practicing contraception for a student living on loans.

The experiences of women at Fordham show that though health exemptions from birth control bans may seem workable in theory, they are not in practice.  The Fordham health centers tell us they have a health exception, but students report being turned away despite medical conditions, some of them quite dangerous or painful.  Students have been refused contraception despite having endometriosis, severe acne, ovarian cysts, and high risk of ovarian cancer.

After hearing the stories from many women affected by the no-birth control policy, we decided we needed to address the lack of access to affordable contraception.  Last November, our student group, the Fordham Chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice, organized a one night off-campus clinic so students could obtain birth control prescriptions.  Over forty students met with doctors and around one hundred students came out to show their support.  We are extremely grateful for the doctors who provided us treatment free of charge, but it is unfortunate that though we pay $2,300 to $2,400 per year for insurance we have to take up volunteer resources that should go to women who lack insurance and financial resources.

At the clinic, we had the opportunity to talk with smart, thoughtful undergraduates from Fordham’s Bronx and Manhattan campuses.  Undergraduates told us in person and in their exit surveys that access to contraception was a problem for them and they wished we had advertised the clinic on their campuses.  The impact of the University’s policies on the undergraduates, which I suspect may be even greater than that on the law students, is in fact a major concern driving our efforts.  It is extremely important for young women to be able to access comprehensive medical care without feeling judged or censored, regardless of whether they are having sex or plan to anytime soon.  Conversation and information help young women to anticipate and make decisions about what kind of sexual experiences they want to have and when.  Sex should be something a woman chooses because she wants it, not something that happens to her; a culture of secrecy and denial of the fact that some students are sexually active is not creating the conditions for that.

Our efforts to improve contraceptive access at Fordham have been met with various iterations of “you should have known” or “it’s you own fault for going to a Catholic school.”  This is a problematic idea for a number of reasons.  It inaccurately paints Catholics and Catholic institutions as monolithically rigid, unreasonable and beholden to the Vatican.  Catholic institutions can and do embrace people of varying beliefs, religions, sexual orientations and cultures.  Fordham University could not attract the caliber of students and faculty it does if it did not.  The implication that no Catholic-affiliated institution would provide standard health care or put policies in place that aren’t papally-approved, such as allowing LGBTQ student groups on campus or providing benefits to the same-sex partners of faculty members or funding scholarship contrary to Catholic doctrine, is inaccurate and offensive.  It rests on stereotypes of Catholics and ignores the fact that students contract with a particular institution, not a religious hierarchy.

On the other hand, our work to get Fordham women the healthcare they need has also been met with an extraordinary outpouring of support.  Fordham students thank us for fighting for them and send their stories, professors tell us they are proud, and alumni of Fordham and other Catholic universities email their encouragement and advice.

We sincerely believe that the medical personnel at our health centers would like to provide the care that is most appropriate for their patients.  We also believe that Fordham and other Catholic-affiliated institutions would like to do what is in the best interests of their students and employees.  However, Catholic-affiliated institutions are subject to significant pressures from influential groups off-campus that purport to speak for Catholics but may not represent the views of Catholic educational institutions, their students or employees.  Given this reality, we need laws that require equality in health care access.  Our experience at Fordham shows that religiously-affiliated institutions can comply with laws that protect a woman’s individual conscience and simultaneously promote their values and further their missions.

Bridgette Dunlap
Emily Wolf
Fordham University School of Law
Fordham Chapter, Law Students for Reproductive Justice

How to Host a Birth Control Clinic in 3 Easy Steps

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, (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.

Ginormous event poster - check! Photo of Leila and Emily in our lovely cafeteria courtesy of Bridgette.

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.

Lots of quality discussion! Photo courtesy of Fordham Observer.

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.

Bridgette being interviewed by Fox News. Photo courtesy of Emily.

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.