The Obama Administration has refused to change a rule requiring that Catholic institutions provide health insurance coverage for contraception for employees at no additional cost, over the protests of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and both conservative and liberal Catholic organizations. As E.J. Dionne writes in Commonweal Magazine, the President has thrown “his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”
The new rule is causing especial consternation on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities, many of which refuse to prescribe or cover birth control for students on religious grounds. Surveys have found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptives, the same as in the general population.
Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, argues that students should know what policies to expect in attending a Catholic school. “No one would go to a Jewish barbecue and expect pork chops to be served,” he says to the New York Times.
Health Benefits of Birth Control
A July 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine about the positive health benefits from birth control makes it clear that contraception, far from being a “convenience,” is indeed medically necessary “to ensure women’s health and well-being.” Providing birth control can lower rates for pregnancy (half of which are unplanned in the US) and abortion (which about 4 out of 10 of those unplanned pregnancies end in). In addition, research shows that women with unintended pregnancies are “more likely to be depressed and to smoke, drink and delay or skip prenatal care, potentially harming fetuses and putting babies at increased risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight.”
Catholic Universities’ Female Students Find Their Health Is Compromised By Restrictions
The official position of the Catholic church is that preventing conception by any artificial means — condoms, IUDs, birth control pills and sterilization — is morally wrong; hence Catholic institutions of higher learning continue to restrict students’ access to birth control.
In interviews with female students at two Jesuit universities, Fordham University in New York City and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the New York Times reveals the potential medical and other problems due to the restrictions for women at Catholic universities:
One recent Georgetown law graduate, who asked not to be identified for reasons of medical privacy, said she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition for which her doctor prescribed birth control pills. She is gay and had no other reason to take the pills. Georgetown does not cover birth control for students, so she made sure her doctor noted the diagnosis on her prescription. Even so, coverage was denied several times. She finally gave up and paid out of pocket, more than $100 a month. After a few months she could no longer afford the pills. Within months she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be removed surgically — along with her ovary.
The former student points out that, due to Georgetown not covering birth control even for clearly medical reasons, she now has only one working ovary and will have to see a fertility specialist if she wishes to have children.
A 23-year-old who became pregnant while an undergraduate at Fordham and who is Catholic said that she used birth control pills while in high school, but “gave them up at Fordham because she could not afford the doctor visit needed for a prescription.” After becoming pregnant (her boyfriend was using a condom) she considered an abortion but then decided to have the baby — and, says the New York Times, ”she said she knew six other Fordham students who had become pregnant and had abortions.”
Certainly there are some students at Catholic institutions who condone the Church’s policies on birth control. Catholic schools’ restrictions on covering birth control are particularly an issue for graduate and professional students studying for degrees in law, psychology, social work and other fields, as such students are likely to be older and in relationships or married (and both Fordham and Georgetown have nationally-ranked graduate and professional schools that draw students from around the world). The existence of the restrictions makes being a student at Catholic institutions a decidedly different experience than if one were studying at a public university or a private institution without a religious affiliation.
The Obama administration has given Catholic schools and religious organizations a one-year delay before they must comply with the rule. Will Catholic institutions continue to discriminate against female students by not providing them with important health care services?
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