Students at Fordham University are engaged in a battle against the New York City Catholic school’s anti-birth control policy.
Students for Sex & Gender Equality and Safety (SAGES) has launched a petition drive, calling on Fordham to provide free and confidential access to birth control and STI testing on-campus, free condoms, professional gynecological services at the university, and resources for pregnant women, among other things. Fordham University currently does not allow contraceptives – including condoms – to be “distributed or prescribed on premises.”
The policy allows health services staff to “make limited exceptions in writing appropriate prescriptions for the treatment of an existing medical condition accompanied by supporting documentation,” but students say that this exception is not always honored. Senior Rachel Field told the Village Voice that a nurse at the Fordham student health center refused to provide her with Depo-Provera, which Field explained she used to prevent ovarian cysts. As a result, Field had to go off of the medication for a month before finding a doctor unaffiliated with the university. Eventually, however, she had to stop taking the shots – landing her in the hospital with a ruptured cyst and a hernia. Though Field later presented documentation of this medical history to the university health center, she explained that she was once again denied birth control.
The school’s birth control policy, SAGES argues, not only threatens students’ health, it also contributes to a “sex-negative campus culture.” The group hopes the university will “foster an environment in which students are encouraged to talk about sex in healthy and safe ways.” Currently, Fordham has no “free speech zone,” in which students can demonstrate against the anti-birth control policy. SAGES has had to anonymously live-tweet meetings about sexual health on campus. They have also clandestinely engaged in “condom drops,” providing free condoms to students at school dances and other events.
Lack of transparency around birth control can also contribute to student frustration with the university. Martha McKinley, a senior at Fordham, says that the school’s policy is kept hidden from incoming students. “It’s not a well-known thing on campus,” she told the Feminist Newswire. Students have to download and leaf through a lengthy document from the school’s website, or visit an on-campus health clinic to be told of the anti-birth control rule. According to McKinley, the process is not a friendly one.
“They’re very judgmental [at the clinic],” she said. “If you want to go on birth control, they won’t give it out, but if they find out you’re sexually active and not on birth control, they demand to know why not.” Once turned away, students are faced with a difficult search for a reasonable alternative. “It’s not easy to walk into the City and find a good, affordable gynecologist,” McKinley adds.
Despite student protests, Fordham does not appear to be backing down. “Like any other private University, Fordham has certain values it holds dear, including the right — as a University in the Jesuit Catholic tradition — to act on those values by following Church teaching on contraception,” said Christopher Rodgers, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.
Senior Courtney Code, a retreat leader for Campus Ministry, however, told USA Today that Fordham’s policies contradict the school’s Jesuit standards. “I think that Fordham’s contraceptive policies — while perhaps aimed at upholding Catholic values — in fact undermine the Jesuit standard of cura personalis (care for the whole person),” Code said. “The inability to acquire any kind of birth control from the Health Center compromises students’ physical, sexual health and the imposition of Catholic expectations of sexual behavior on a largely non-Catholic student population compromises psychological health by coloring sexual encounters and experiences as shameful.”
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), health insurance plans must cover prescription contraceptives without requiring co-pays. However, religiously-affiliated institutions, like Fordham, do not have to provide, or pay for, contraceptive coverage directly. Students must still be able to access contraceptives, without copays, through their insurance, but there is no requirement that Fordham itself provide birth control, prescriptions for birth control, or contraceptive counseling. This places many students who cannot easily access health care services, in a bind, especially those students who must access birth control for medical reasons, like Rachel Field.
“Student health and safety is non-negotiable,” said Field. She cited the UN listing of access to birth control as a basic human right, asking “why are we being denied human rights at Fordham?”
Media Resources: Change.org; ThinkProgress 10/20/14; Village Voice 10/8/14; USA Today College 10/5/14; Feminist Newswire 7/7/14; Fordham University