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Speaking Up for Birth Control

July 23, 2012

Few issues have roiled Roman Catholic colleges more this year than the requirement from the Obama administration that Catholic employers cover birth control at no charge as part of their health insurance plans.

But while administrators have varied in how strongly they’ve joined Catholic bishops in protesting the mandate -- some colleges have sued the federal government, while others have contented themselves with statements of support for the Catholic church's position -- there has been little organized protest on campuses in favor of insurance that covers birth control.

At the University of Notre Dame, which sued the Department of Health and Human Services over the mandate in May, three philosophy graduate students have started a petition opposing the lawsuit.

But rather than arguing for birth control on its secular merits -- as a letter from the faculty at John Carroll University to its president did in February, calling contraception “central to the health and well-being of women and children” -- the petition takes a theological tack, arguing that the mandate might not conflict with Catholic teachings at all.

It goes on to subtly criticize the university for emphasizing the birth control controversy rather than working to develop more family-friendly policies.

The petition relies on a philosophical precept, the doctrine of double effect, which argues that in some cases, it is permissible to cause harm in the process of achieving something good under certain conditions, and suggests that insurance coverage for contraception might not conflict with Catholic teaching under that doctrine. Its writers go on to argue that an exception to the mandate would be coercive for non-Catholic students and employees (or to Catholic students and employees who choose not to follow the church’s position on birth control).

“By requiring its employees to purchase additional insurance or to pay out of pocket, thereby placing a not insignificant financial burden on them, Notre Dame is effectively utilizing indirect coercion and imposing its religious beliefs and practices on its employees,” the petition’s authors wrote.

The contraception mandate caused an immediate uproar when it was first put forward in January. A compromise, suggested by the Obama administration a few weeks later, would require health insurers, not institutions, to cover the costs of providing birth control to female employees (as well as students on student health plans). But it did little to quell the outrage, which has built in the Catholic church.

“We just think there are much better ways that the university could be focusing its energy,” said Kathryn Pogin, one of the petition’s three authors, who is entering her second year as a graduate student in philosophy.

The petition calls on Notre Dame to address the needs of graduate students who are also parents, such as making the university-provided health care for dependents less expensive or extending child care to children younger than 2, or offering paid parental leave to graduate students who have exhausted their years of guaranteed funding.

“These are matters of gender equity,” the petitioners wrote. “These are matters of supporting families. These are matters of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. Yet the university does not address them.”

So far, the petition has fewer than 100 signatures, though Pogin said they include quite a few faculty members as well as graduate students. She said she would like to see at least 200 signatures before delivering the petition to the administration.

Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, will respond personally to petitioners soon, university spokesman Dennis Brown wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. (Note: This story has been updated to reflect Notre Dame's response.)

One thing that has troubled many who signed, and even some who did not, Pogin said, was that the decision to sue was made without consulting the faculty or student body. “I know some people were notified after the fact before it was made public,” she said. “They would have preferred to be consulted. They would have preferred to have discussion.”

 

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