Despite State Birth Control Mandate, Fordham Law Students Lack Access to Affordable Contraception Even for Medical Reasons

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Commentary Contraception

Despite State Birth Control Mandate, Fordham Law Students Lack Access to Affordable Contraception Even for Medical Reasons

Bridgette Dunlap

Under New York State's law mandating insurance coverage for contraception, Fordham 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, despite state law, Fordham still fails to guarantee access to affordable contraception.

This article–originally submitted as testimony to the the February 16th, 2012 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing on Women’s Health and Contraceptive Coverage–is co-authored by Emily Wolf, Fordham University School of Law, Fordham Chapter, Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

For all our coverage of the 2012 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing, click here.

For all our coverage of the 2012 Contraceptive Mandate, click here.

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. 

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From our perspective here at Fordham, the suggestion that requiring the non-discriminatory prescription coverage we already enjoy represents 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 contraceptive 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 a 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 outright denial of the fact that some students are sexually active, is not conducive to informed desicion-making.

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.