Last month, Wheaton College in Illinois announced that it will not be providing its health insurance plan for students this fall. This announcement came just two days after a judge ruled that the Affordable Care Act’s amended opt-out process for the birth control benefit was not a substantial burden for the Little Sisters of the Poor charity in Colorado, and two weeks after a similar ruling in an ongoing lawsuit with which Wheaton is involved. Wheaton seems to have sacrificed the well-being of many students to make an ideological point. Without access to necessary medical care, several students will be left high and dry in the coming school year—particularly any who may become victims of sexual assault.
In February 2012, about six months before the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate went into effect, Wheaton dropped contraception coverage from its employee insurance. It did so in a seeming effort to strengthen its case that religiously affiliated institutions should not be forced to provide medications with which they do not agree for their workers. Illinois, where Wheaton is located, already had a law mandating coverage of birth control and emergency contraceptives in place, with which Wheaton was compliant. The ACA’s federal mandate, however, apparently made officials at Wheaton think twice about obeying it.
After dropping its employee coverage, Wheaton joined the numerous Catholic hospitals and private Christian organizations choosing to sue the federal government over the birth control mandates.
Wheaton’s stance extends from a resurgence of an old evangelical argument against birth control. One of the potential effects of hormonal birth control is making the uterine lining too thin for implantation to occur, though stopping ovulation is the first line of defense. Because of this potential—though unproven—effect, a growing number of evangelicals are arguing that certain kinds of birth control are abortifacients. They consider IUDs and emergency contraception particularly objectionable because of misunderstandings about how they function. Wheaton and other evangelical institutions cannot risk even the impression that they are supporting the so-called sin of abortion, which is presumably why they’ve taken such a hardline stance, in spite of the lack of scientific evidence.
Wheaton eventually received an interim order from the Roberts Court allowing religiously affiliated nonprofits to follow a workaround in order to comply with the birth control benefit, which was codified by an official ruling from the Obama administration. Basically, the nonprofits fill out a form to opt-out, and employees—or, in this case, students—deal directly with the insurance company for contraception coverage. Two weeks after an injunction against the opt-out was refused this summer, Wheaton dropped student health insurance coverage entirely.
According to statements on the school’s website, the “college has been forced to quickly make difficult choices.” Wheaton did not respond to emails for comment on this story.
The college has published information for students needing new health-care coverage on its site, while also telling students that it is “not appropriate” for them to attend Wheaton without available health insurance. The student health services, while still in operation, do not offer comprehensive, ongoing care that may be needed for pre-existing medical conditions or newly diagnosed disorders. Student health services typically take short-term cases: flus, colds, temporary illnesses, and immunizations. They don’t function as a substitute for a primary care doctor, which students would need insurance coverage for.
For the students, this means something as simple as finding and filling a prescription with a doctor or a pharmacist is now a major hassle. Students who were on Wheaton’s insurance plan had to scramble to find coverage, as their plans terminated on July 31, a mere three weeks after Wheaton announced the cancellation of coverage. Students on the school-provided coverage are typically those who cannot join their parents’ insurance plan, because they are older than 25 or for another reason, such as their parents having their own difficulty obtaining insurance. It is also frequently subsidized by the school itself, making the coverage often more affordable than other alternatives.
These students may seek coverage in the federal marketplace exchanges, but this means they stand a good chance of having some gap in coverage time, whether for a month or for an entire semester, depending on their eligibility. These gaps can prove financially devastating for those with chronic medical conditions that require long-term, often costly, medical coverage.
While Illinois is one of the states that chose to expand Medicaid coverage—meaning students do have some less expensive options available—Wheaton’s move here does not happen in a vacuum. As a prominent Christian college and member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Wheaton may have set a precedent for other schools that want to “take a stand” against emergency contraception and birth control that their denomination, or donors and trustees, have a problem with. For many students in states that did not expand Medicaid coverage, this could have a devastating effect, resulting in the loss of available health coverage and creating another barrier between them and higher education.
I spoke to several students and alumnae of Christian colleges, including Wheaton, across the nation about the impact student health insurance plans had on their lives. Several students speaking on the condition of anonymity told me outright that a cancellation of their student health insurance plan would have resulted in dropping out of college or graduate school due to the prohibitive cost of obtaining private insurance. Many of the students covered by the less expensive student health insurance plans are scholarship students who are relying heavily on financial aid and school-provided funding or loans to begin with, so these students now have the additional problem of seeking out cheap catastrophic coverage or Medicaid to maintain basic health care.
One student I spoke to commented that a cancellation of student health insurance would have restricted her access to necessary therapy and mental health care, leaving her with no way to treat her suicidal depression. Another commented that she relied on student health insurance during her graduate degree at a Catholic university, and a cancellation would have resulted in her dropping out of her degree program.
Perhaps scariest of all, the kind of contraceptive coverage Wheaton has chosen to take a stand over is the kind most necessary to victims of rape. Emergency contraception, or Plan B, is a concentrated dose of hormonal birth control, meant to prevent pregnancy in the event of unprotected sexual encounters. It does not dislodge an already implanted pregnancy, but has the potentiality to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine lining by making it an inhospitable environment. This potentiality of rejection of a fertilized egg is what Wheaton objects to and why they refuse coverage for emergency contraception. While emergency contraception itself is not typically prohibitively expensive, Wheaton’s willingness to throw its students’ health under the bus for it displays an alarming disregard for survivors. For example, emergency contraception is frequently given as part of sexual assault aftercare in the emergency room if rape is reported immediately, meaning that insurance indirectly helps pay for that cost.
Other victims may seek out Plan B following their rape to ensure no pregnancy will happen, even if they never report their rape. One student at a Christian college informed me directly: “I was raped while pursuing my second degree, and if they hadn’t covered the extensive treatment I required after that because of religious views, they would have been putting my physical and mental health at risk.”
Keeping this kind of policy in place may also dissuade students who cannot afford private insurance from applying to Wheaton, or institutions who have followed in its wake, at all. Christian higher education already has a demographic problem of being very upper-middle class. With the exception of some larger schools like Baylor in Texas (of which I am an alum) and Liberty University in Virginia, the vast majority of Christian colleges are also quite small. Creating yet another barrier that keeps students without means out of their school system only serves to ensure the continued privilege of Christian higher education.
Additionally, this is another instance in which a Christian college is engaging in political stances unsupported by its student body. As I wrote recently about LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, the student body is often at odds with the administration when it comes to supposed dealbreakers for the faith. Wheaton College has taken the stance that emergency contraception is wrong, but numerous students both at Wheaton and at colleges across the nation disagree with such a decision. One former Wheaton student, who is now a nurse, told me that “IUDs are among the most safe and effective forms of long-acting birth control available,” and “Emergency contraception … is still an absolute necessity and should be available without question to any person who needs it, regardless of age.”
Wheaton’s decision to end student health insurance plans over an ideological disagreement does not just impact students at Wheaton, but students across the country. These students, many of whom do not agree with the ideological conservatism these colleges have, are being used as pawns in the culture wars—and their access to education is at stake. If these Christian colleges really do want to cast themselves as the compassionate conservative evangelicals, canceling student health insurance is not the way to enforce that image.