Sharing Experiences with Abortion: Helpful, Harmful, or Neither?

Kaitlin Morrison, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, Columbia Law School)

It has been a big week for reproductive rights in Texas, and across the country.

Perhaps spurred by these events, the New York Times is aflutter with related topics, such as the exorbitant cost of pregnancy and birth in the United States, and a debate on the effects of story-telling, or coming out on abortion: the topic of today’s post.

The discussion reminded me of what allies from Access Women’s Health Justice shared with me a few weeks ago: sharing stories is what changes people’s mind about abortion. And yet, shortly after hearing this I heard something quite the opposite from an attorney at the ACLU reproductive freedom project at the LSRJ Reproductive Rights, Law and Justice training. She said that empirically, abortion stories don’t tend to sway public opinion in the same way that stories about gay marriage have been so successful. So what gives?

There are several perspectives on the effect of story-telling from the Times today. Some say that women should share their abortion stories to reassure others and dispel the shame and stigma surround the procedure. Others claim that sharing stories will breed contempt for abortions, or would discourage women from having one themselves. Still others think that sharing stories will have no real effect on public opinion.

My views align most closely to those expressed by Aspen Baker from Exhale (a pro-voice organization), in her piece: Openness shouldn’t create partisan debate. Abortion stories are as unique as the men and women to whom they belong. Blogs detail various abortion stories: I’m Not Sorry and 1 in 3 collect the stories of those who, for myriad reasons, feel they made the right choice, while other sites are dedicated to collecting stories of those who regret their abortions. Still others focus on men’s experiences with abortion. These stories can be spun by either side to support or denigrate the decision, to our collective detriment.

I believe in the cathartic power of sharing one’s stories. One way to abolish shame is to abolish secrecy. However, it is equally laudable to view the decision as a private one. Not everyone need share the medical procedures they have had in the name of principle. Pro-voice is the perfect term to express the need for a humanizing, and individual approach towards experiences with abortion.

 

Religion and Reproductive Justice: A Personal Story

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

I am a law student at the University of Oregon but this weekend I ventured out of the northwest and attended LSRJ’s northeast regional conference at Harvard Law, hosted by the Harvard Law Students for Reproductive Justice.  At the conference, one of the panels was entitled RJ and Religion: Whose Conscience Matters?  The speakers all did a wonderful job of unraveling the complexities of reproductive justice issues through a religious lens. 

The first speaker from Mergerwatch Project enlightened me on the issues that arise from a hospital’s merger with a religious affiliated organization.  Her talk was great!  But I most identified with the last two speakers from Catholics for Choice and a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Due to my Catholic upbringing I have both the blessing and the curse of the religion’s teachings.  A baptized and confirmed Catholic, I have an understanding of the Bible that many others don’t have and less useful perhaps, I know the words to a number of hymnals and know when to kneel and make the sign of the holy trinity during mass.  One of the “curses” of being a Catholic, for me, was being brought up to believe that a woman who exercises her right not to have children (by way of an abortion or use of EC like Plan B) is killing a life and must be excommunicated.  Additionally, the Catholic teachings taught me that sex was a dirty word and that the only intercourse should be between a husband (a man) and his wife (a woman) in their marital bed…for the sole purpose of procreating.  This all got complicated for me during my teen years.  You see, I began to feel as though the religion was incompatible with my personal beliefs.  I embraced my sexuality and felt that it was something that didn’t belong solely to the married hetero man and woman.  I struggled, trying out different churches, searching for one that I better identified with.  I didn’t find the elusive church that I longed for but I did find fellowship.  First, it was among my theater friends in high school and then with my fellow nerdy English majors, and finally, alongside other LSRJ warriors.

What I have discovered and what the speakers at the LSRJ conference highlighted is that reproductive justice doesn’t have to conflict with your religion.  Rather, RJ can exist in harmony with your faith.  The speakers reiterated something that most folks already acknowledge – religious leaders, even though they may say they are, are not always speaking for their constituents.  This is particularly true for Catholic bishops (Only 7% of Catholic voters believe strongly that Catholics have an obligation to vote only for candidates who are recommended by the Catholic bishops).

I am no longer a practicing Catholic but I don’t see this as a sad ending to the story of my religious quest.  I see this as a moment of personal recognition.  I recognized as a young adult that Catholicism did not align with my personal needs or beliefs.  It was later in adulthood that I came to realized that organized religion in general did not agree with my faith.  My story is personal and my story is a happy story.  I feel blessed to have been raised in a Catholic environment; there are so many good things that came from it.  However, I also feel blessed to have realized at a fairly young age what did and did not work for me when it came to religion and faith.  Having engaged in self-discovery, I feel better prepared to speak to others about RJ issues through a religious/faith-based lens and understand the struggles that some folks feel when navigating the worlds of RJ and religion.  I hope that along with the speakers that I met today, I can help others to understand that they don’t have to choose religion or RJ but can embrace both comfortably knowing they are not alone. 

We have to trust you with a gun, trust us with our bodies and families

Ash Moore, Resident Blogger (’14, University of Oklahoma College of Law)

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has created a lot of reactionary political push from the left for more gun control. I own multiple guns. I believe the second amendment is broad and sweeping. I believe it is one of the secured rights that makes this country unique and legally superior. However, I also think the implicit right to privacy in our Constitution that is necessary to fulfill the promises of the second amendment and others, is also an important secured right.

This right is what Roe v. Wade was based on. After the recent 40th anniversary and discussion about the ever-increasing restrictions and regulations, Newtown got me thinking. The right wing trusts every American who can walk and chew gum with guns. But they don’t trust an educated woman to make choices about her own body and family (including but not limited to abortion). On the other hand, the left wing wants the government to trust every American who can walk and chew gum with decisions about the most important building block of society, the family.

I remember coming to law school thinking of Justice Scalia as a cold-hearted, heinous Justice who sought to disenfranchise the American people (my parents are pretty liberal criminal defense attorneys). But the first case I read in law school had an opinion by Justice Scalia that I agreed with. I immediately called my mom in tears thinking something was wrong with me. She consoled me, but was obviously upset by the news. She asked me what the name of the case was and when I told her it was DC v. Heller, a gun rights case, she sighed some relief and said, “calm down, Idiot. That’s different.”

Before too long I realized she was right, but I still don’t understand why. Why is it encouraged for political parties and individuals to tailor their arguments to the outcome they want? Why is it encouraged for politicians to flip-flop their reasoning but not their outcomes? There is a lot I don’t understand in this world. I don’t know why they leave chip bags two-thirds empty or how they get those ships in those bottles. But I thought I understood the Constitution.

I know argument exists over the proper way to interpret the Constitution. But I didn’t know people reasoned backwards to get the result they wanted out of it. I believe the political parties should take a stance; you either trust the American people to make their own choices and properly exercise their rights, or you don’t. But you don’t get to pick and choose which rights they get control over. Whether the discussion is about gun or reproductive rights, the argument will always turn to the power over life and death. But I think all the mudslinging and buzzwords cloud the bare bones arguments. Probably intentionally.

The only thing better than being a Texan is being an American. There are a lot of things wrong with my state and my country. But as a patriot, it is my job to question when appropriate and defend when needed. I am a second class citizen in a lot of ways. But I believe in this country and in the people who make it up. That’s my stance. What’s yours? Do you trust me and others, or not?

Who decides? Reproductive Justice advocates think you should

Elisabeth Smith, Resident Blogger (’14, University of Washington School of Law)

On Saturday, February 2nd, my LSRJ chapter hosted a conference titled “Reproductive Justice: Meta Rights and Milestones.” In the process of organizing the conference, I’ve thought a lot about RJ’s meta rights: the right to have a child; the right not to have a child; and the right to parent the children you have with dignity, free from violence and oppression. Two recent news stories demonstrated how some people with privilege have attempted to limit those rights by ridiculously redefining them.

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the New Mexico GOP state representative, Cathrynn Brown, who introduced a bill last week that would bar abortions for rape victims. How you ask? Well, by making it a felony for women who become pregnant as the result of rape to have an abortion because an abortion is, by the bill’s definition, evidence tampering.

Yep.

When this story went viral, the esteemed representative released a mind-twister of a statement:“House Bill 206 was never intended to punish or criminalize rape victims. It’s intent was solely to deter rape and cases of incest. The rapist–not the victim– would be charged with tampering of evidence.”

So, the rapist whose assault “created” the evidence would also be charged with tampering with that evidence if his victim chose not to have a child? Hmmm. Try substituting another crime into this scenario if you want to really see how ridiculous it is.

Just over the border in Colorado, another story emerged. As a defense to a medical malpractice suit, lawyers for St. Thomas More hospital, a Catholic hospital in Cañon City, Colorado, argued that a fetus is not a person.  The hospital is run by Catholic Health Initiatives, a national chain that follows the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Part IV of the directives state “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn and the care of women and their children during and after pregnancy. [at p23] Many people have crowed about the hypocrisy of championing the legal argument that a fetus is not a person while at the same time prohibiting abortion and contraception on the theory that life begins at conception.

In New Mexico, a fetus becomes evidence and at Catholic hospitals following the bishops’ directives, a fetus is a fetus in cases of medical malpractice, but not when someone would like access to contraceptives or abortion. In such cases, your ability to decide how and when to have a child or how to grieve for lives that you anticipated welcoming is interpreted through the prism of someone else’s ideology and whether its convenient for them to demonstrate some consistency.

Those who oppose the right to have an abortion need to demonstrate integrity to their position. Abortion is not felony “evidence tampering” and if life begins at conception, it does so even when money is at stake.

Contraception Legal Battle Impacts LGBT Community

This post originally appeared on the National Center for Lesbian Rights blog on September 28. It was written by one of LSRJ’s 12-13 RJ Fellows, Laura Nixon.

On Friday September 21, the National Center for Lesbian Rights attended a symposium at the Georgetown University Law Center on “Contraception and Conscience: A Symposium on Religious Liberty, Women’s Health, and the HHS Rule on Provision of Birth Control Coverage for Employees.”

Anti-choice politicians and groups have tried to generate controversy around the contraception provisions in the preventative care regulations related to the Affordable Care Act. The regulations required that employers offering group health plans must provide certain preventative care to employees without cost-sharing. For women, the required preventative care services were based on a report by the Institute of Medicine, which, among other services, included the following important preventative services: well-woman visits; breastfeeding support; domestic violence screening; and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved contraceptive methods. These contraceptive methods include, among others: prescription contraception, emergency contraception, and intrauterine devices (IUDs).

Subsequently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued an additional regulation providing that certain purely religious institutions (such as churches), were exempt from the requirement that their group health insurance plan(s) cover FDA approved contraceptive methods.  This type of accommodation for a religious institution is common to strike the appropriate balance between ensuring access to comprehensive care and respecting that some purely religious institutions see such provision as a violation of their faith tenets.  Nonetheless, in what some commentators saw as a political ploy to generate criticism of President Obama, more than 40 religiously-affiliated organizations filed lawsuits against HHS, claiming that the exemption for religious groups is too narrow and violates their religious freedom. The symposium explored this legal battle.

This debate has a huge impact on the LGBT community. Access to contraception, emergency contraception, and abortion care are important healthcare issues for lesbians, trans people, and bisexual and queer women.  It is crucial for the LGBT community that comprehensive healthcare and contraception remain fully accessible and affordable for all who need it. This is particularly important for those living in poverty or with low-incomes – who are disproportionately women of color – and are especially vulnerable to these efforts that make care prohibitively expensive.  Affordable reproductive healthcare is especially important for queer youth, for reasons that law professor Ruthann Robson points out in this op-ed:

[Q]ueer youth are especially vulnerable. They may have engaged in heterosexual sex for a variety of reasons, including coercion, intimidation, camouflage, sexual abuse, or survival/commercial sex. They may also be less likely to use birth control and several studies have documented that lesbian youth are two to ten times more likely to become pregnant than their heterosexual counterparts . . .

NCLR was proud to have been involved in advocacy efforts around the HHS regulation making contraception affordable, as part of a society where all people have the resources they need to make meaningful decisions about the trajectory of their lives. We stand with reproductive justice advocates in supporting affordable contraception as an important part of reproductive healthcare.

Media Contact: NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.365.1324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

A Closer Look at the Contraceptive Coverage Lawsuits: The Radical Agenda Behind the Fight Over Religious Exemptions

This post originally appeared at RH Reality Check on Wed., September 26th and was updated on Mon., October 1. It was written by LSRJ alumna Bridgette Dunlap (’12, Fordham Law School). She and fellow chapter leader Emily Wolf created and implemented the first-ever Prescribe Fordham!, a sexual health fair clinic for Fordham students. Read more about their campus activism here.

UPDATE TO CONTRACEPTIVE COVERAGE LAWSUITS:

Shortly after the original article on this issue was published, a district court in Missouri made the first ruling on the merits in any of the contraceptive mandate challenges, dismissing all claims in O’Brien v. HHS. The court held, among other things, that providing contraceptive coverage is not a “substantial burden” on religious exercise barred by the Religious Freedom Information Act and that the religious employer exemption does not excessively entangle government with religion in violation of the First Amendment.

The case involves a secular for-profit employer, but the arguments rejected by the court are representative of those found in the complaints filed by religiously-affiliated plaintiffs. The decision is a fairly readable primer on the controlling law in these cases. It illustrates that beyond these cases being premature in the case of the religiously-affiliated plaintiffs, the substantive claims are extremely weak. For this reason, the religiously-affiliated plaintiffs might not see any benefit in waiting until they have standing in cases that are likely to fail. The weakness of these cases may also explain their quantity. In addition to making a big pre-election statement, filing numerous cases increases the likelihood of finding one judge willing to depart from settled law or expand the reach of a statute, in an act of so-called “judicial activism.”

Original article follows below.

Thirty lawsuits have been filed by corporations challenging the Health and Human Services regulationrequiring that most health plans cover contraceptives. The plaintiffs are primarily Christian-affiliated institutions, but include some secular for-profit companies as well. A survey of these cases yields some useful information as to what the “religious freedom” debate is all about.

The strangest thing about these cases is that the plaintiffs, with the exception of the secular for-profits, have not yet been required to provide contraceptive coverage and may never be. The Obama administration has exempted objecting religiously-affiliated organizations from the regulation for one year while the accommodation is negotiated and finalized. The administration has been extremely generous in allowing objecting institutions to take advantage of this “safe harbor,” even amending the eligibility requirements to include institutions that have provided contraceptive coverage in the past but recently discovered they were violating their religious beliefs by doing so.

Thus, the claim of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, quoted in a number of the complaints, that the safe harbor gives religiously-affiliated institutions “a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” does not comport with the facts, to put it nicely. The safe harbor is not merely a delay. It is a period intended for continued dialogue. At this point, the religiously-affiliated plaintiffs do not know if they will ever have to provide insurance with contraceptive coverage, which is why the three cases decided so far have been dismissed.

Opponents of the regulation have claimed repeatedly that the problem isn’t that it will make contraception more accessible, but that its exception for religious organizations is too narrow. But, oddly, rather than arguing they meet the criteria for an exception or should, the plaintiffs in these cases argue that that they are not exempt. Why do this? Why not ask and argue for an exemption and sue only if the government does require that plaintiffs provide coverage for contraception? These cases are premature and courts are likely to continue to throw them out without reaching the merits.

It takes a lot of time and money to bring so many bad cases before the government has made you do anything you don’t want to. What’s the big rush?

I suspect there’s a looming deadline at play here that has nothing to do with litigation strategy: the election. Bringing these cases now, allows opponents of the Obama administration to say essentially, “Look, thirty lawsuits! What an unprecedented violation of religious freedom! Stop this man who has forced your humble bishop to sue.” These cases are politically useful because the fact that the administration let these institutions have their way for the time being and may forever isn’t what gets reported. And should the courts ever reach the merits of these highly dubious claims, it will be after November 6th.

Beyond what the timing suggests about the political objectives, these cases reveal the nature of the objection to the policy. Plaintiffs are going to court claiming not to be exempt instead of arguing they should be because they don’t actually want an exemption. They want the whole law struck down. In many of the complaints, plaintiffs are not just asking the courts to bar enforcement of the regulation against their particular institutions for religious reasons, but explicitly seeking that the mandate be vacated in its entirety.

That the exception isn’t the problem is also evident in the support of religious contraception opponents for the challenges brought by secular, for-profit corporations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cheered when a judge temporarily barred enforcement of the regulation in the case of a manufacturing company that was clearly not a religious organization eligible for an exemption. Cardinal Dolan has described the change to the regulation he would find acceptable: “All Washington has to do is say, ‘Any entity that finds these mandates morally objectionable is not coerced to do them,’ and leave it there.” The issue with this proposal, however, is that when you get to decide whether or not to do what the government says that is not what we call a law. In demanding that providing coverage be optional, Cardinal Dolan is claiming the government cannot regulate any health plan in a way that conflicts with his beliefs, no matter how secular the employer.

Many of the complaints in these cases contain a further bizarre argument that the inquiry into whether or not an institution qualifies for a religious exemption is so intrusive as to entangle the government in religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Now, as a matter of well-settled constitutional law, the government is not required to grant any accommodation whatsoever to those whose religious expression is burdened by a generally applicable law. However, the general consensus is that it should do so in some circumstances and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires this. But we can’t have any exemptions without a determination of who is exempt. This commonsense principle has been noted by courts upholding state contraceptive coverage mandates that contain religious accommodations identical to the one in issue. If the argument that granting an exception amounts to entanglement were adopted, it would harm the interests of a religious person who has a genuine need for an exemption from a law that burdens her religious expression, rather than a policy disagreement as seems to be the case here.

The potential unintended consequence of the intrusiveness argument is not the only reason it is striking. As currently written, the criteria for the exemption includes factors such as an institution’s corporate form, primary purpose, and who it hires and serves. This inquiry is relevant to whether insured persons have notice of and have consented to having their health plans governed by religious precepts.

The plaintiff institutions, on the other hand, are effectively demanding a less reasonable and more intrusive inquiry into the circumstances of individual plan participants. As Notre Dame notes in its complaint, Catholic doctrine does not prohibit the use of contraceptives to treat medical conditions. Therefore, the University is not purporting to have a sincere religious belief that bars providing coverage for contraceptives, but demanding the right to investigate why a woman has been prescribed contraception and the authority to adjudicate whether that prescription was justified by a medical condition of a type and severity deemed worthy of treatment by some unidentified arbiter.

Ultimately, the picture that emerges from these cases is not of religious adherents trying to alter the difficult balance between laws enacted for the general welfare and respect for individuals whose religious exercise stands to be limited. These cases reject the opportunity to compromise or even negotiate. They are an assertion of institutional religious power that appears to be aimed at influencing American politics and undoing policy put in place by officials obligated to represent Americans of all faiths.

Follow Bridgette Dunlap on Twitter, @bridgettedunlap

The Repro Rundown

If you haven’t yet heard, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice is now Forward Together: So All Families Can Thrive. Evelyn Shen, Executive Director of Forward Together describes changes over the years, the new name, and why “Forward Together” encompasses who they are.

Radical feminist nuns being shunned by the Vatican, too rich.

Our own Sabrina Andrus was a speaker for “Our Bodies are Beautiful, Our Bodies are Political” a panel at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference in Amherst last week!

After some controversy, the creator and writer of the new HBO series ‘Girls’ may have learned that there is no such thing as ironic racism.

PSA: safe sex for Seniors!

 

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

Delays and Barriers to Accessing BC at Georgetown

Sandra Fluke, Georgetown University Law Students for Reproductive Justice

This blog is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

As you may have recently read in the New York Times, although Georgetown’s student health insurance doesn’t cover contraception, it does cover birth control pills when they’re prescribed for medical reasons other than preventing pregnancy (e.g. severe acne, mood disorders, etc.).  This is called the “over-ride” process because it over-rides the usual ban on contraceptive coverage.  Unfortunately, this over-ride process is terribly flawed and fails many women at Georgetown.  The problems with this process illustrate the consequences for women’s health when university administrators dictate which reasons for a birth control prescription are the “right” reasons.

Because of an obsession with preventing students from fraudulently using the over-ride to get contraception coverage for the “wrong” reason (preventing pregnancy), students who attempt to use the over-ride process are sometimes subjected to questioning and accusations that they are lying about their qualifying medical needs.  This is followed with long delays and bureaucratic barriers that don’t exist for any other prescription covered by Georgetown’s insurance.  The Times profiled how Georgetown’s policy resulted in a medical tragedy for one woman.  In response a Georgetown spokeswoman said that:

problems like this were rare and that doctors at the health service knew how to help students get coverage for contraceptives needed for medical reasons.

If only that were true!  Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice actually surveyed students at the law school about this.  For some students, the over-ride process works adequately, but 65% of students attempting to utilize the over-ride process reported being subjected to extensive questioning, inordinate clerical issues, extensive delays, or other complications because of disbelief from doctors and insurance administrators.  20% either never received their medication or were never reimbursed by the insurance company.  Here are the experiences of just a few students:

I was without birth control for many months because of problems with the over-ride.  I spoke with people at [the student health] clinic, the Georgetown main insurance office, the insurance company, the drug insurance company, and a pharmacy.  I was put on hold multiple times and had to call some of these people multiple times.  After investing at least ten hours in the process, I gave up. . . .

Simply because I am sexually active, the doctor assumed I was lying even though I have medical needs.  I struggled with getting an over-ride because the doctor was hesitant even though I reported severe pain and mood changes that affect my functioning as a student. . . .

[M]y OB/GYN suspects that I have endometriosis and I took a specific pill to help control it.  Endometriosis cannot be definitively diagnosed without surgery, and obtaining a waiver was stressful and time consuming.  It unnecessarily distracted me from my classes. . . .

I have found the health care coverage ban on birth control embarrassing and potentially harmful.  When scheduling a yearly gynecological exam, I was subject to a line of hostile questioning twice: once by the person scheduling the exam and once by the doctor performing the exam.  The questions included queries about my sexual history, which seems appropriate for the doctor to ask about, but not the scheduler.  A yearly gynecological exam is a recommended procedure and may not even be tied to a birth control prescription.  Georgetown’s refusal to cover birth control creates a potential burden on a woman getting this exam at all. . . .

Tragically, Georgetown’s policy has also created rampant misinformation regarding student insurance coverage of women’s reproductive healthcare generally, leading to some students foregoing essential medical care:

[I] was intimidated by the [‘override’] process and thus I did forego OBGYN care for over a year.  More importantly, the reputation that Georgetown has as being . . . unsupportive of women’s reproductive health prevented me from seeking out STD testing after I was sexually assaulted.  (I assumed [Georgetown] would not cover my HIV/STD testing because when I was tested last year at my provider’s office . . . as part of a regular/routine exam, I paid $500 due to lack of coverage.  It was not until several months after I was assaulted that I found out . . . that [Georgetown] would cover such tests.  In general, there is a problematic lack of info about women’s health coverage on campus.  I did not even know I could get an OBGYN exam at the law center until a friend told me my 2L year.  While I support Georgetown’s Jesuit identity and am a person of faith myself, I find our school’s policy to be . . . harmful to students. . . .

I’d say “harmful to students” is putting it lightly.  That’s why we’re so thankful that the new Affordable Care Act regulations will protect vulnerable students and end these types of dangerous insurance policies!

The Impact of a Religious Exemption for Birth Control to University Students

Emily T. Wolf, Vice-President, Fordham Law Students for Reproductive Justice

This blog is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival and is cross-posted from Fordham LSRJ’s blog.

After spending the past three semesters trying to understand Fordham University’s birth control prescription policy, we recently had a small victory when the University updated the health center’s website to clarify that birth control will not be prescribed at Fordham unless the student has a medical exception.  This victory came at the same time as a larger victory announced by the Department of Health and Human Services that a religious exemption to contraceptive coverage in health insurance will not be extended.

This is great news for students.  While insured students at Fordham and in New York are already covered by a New York state law that mandates insurance coverage for contraceptives (as well as students in 27 other states), this will ensure that all students who attend religious universities will be able to receive contraceptive at a more reasonable cost without a copay.  As we know, students are a vulnerable population (almost one in five young women ages 18-24 have experienced forced sexual intercourse) and low-cost contraception is an important part of being able to foster our own sexual health decisions.  Contraception can also ensure that students are able to decide when and how to parent children, which will certainly have an effect on students’ future careers.

Students of many different faiths and experiences attend religious universities.  While those in favor of a more broad religious exemption may have a problem with contraception as an imposition to their consciences, similar exemptions are already in place in over half of the states.  The Obama administration must continue to stand up for all of us to ensure that we receive the health care we need to survive and thrive.