Fordham Should Prescribe Birth Control

Fordham Law Students for Reproductive Justice in The Ram, February 08, 2012

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Let's talk about sex.

It is not a conversation that happens often on our campus. Our reluctance to do so, however, recently landed Fordham on College Magazine's list of the most prudish universities.

Add to that conservative attitude Fordham's strict guidelines concerning birth control and contraceptives, in line with most Catholic institutions, and you have a culture where discussions about sexuality and sexual health are taboo.

According to the Student Health Services website, "as an institution in the Catholic, Jesuit tradition, Fordham University follows church teachings on reproductive issues."

The Catholic Church, of course, considers it immoral to prevent conception by any artificial means, including condoms, birth control pills and IUDs.

Not all students attending Fordham, however, realize at first how Catholic tenets reflect on Fordham's policies regarding women's health.

"I'm not Catholic, so I didn't connect the two things," Elizabeth Bolen, FCRH '14, said. "I just assumed that every college does [provide contraceptives]."

"I transferred from a different school in Baltimore, where we could get condoms whenever we needed them, and I already had a [birth control] prescription and everything," Stella Jendrzejewski, FCRH '13, said. "So I didn't even worry about [Fordham's policy when I started] here."

It is hard to place the blame on students for not understanding Fordham's policy, since the full explanation is essentially hidden on the University's website.

One organization, Fordham Law Students for Reproductive Justice (FLSRJ), has been pushing for a clarification of Fordham's birth control policy.

"When there's a policy that effects 50 percent of the students that attend the University, we just want to make sure that that information is clear and available to students so there's no misconceptions," Emily Wolf, Fordham Law '13 and vice president of FLSRJ, said.

Online, one has to visit the Women's Health Care tab on the Student Health Services site to find an explicit statement on the policy. It is the only page that states the following:

"Neither contraceptives nor birth control are distributed or prescribed on premises as a standard practice."

"We prescribe birth control pills to students with specific medical reasons such as PCOS, acne, etc. with official documentation from doctors or through examination at [the] health center. Reasons other than contraceptive purposes," Kathleen M. Malara, director of Student Health Services, said.

Due to new government mandates about contraceptives, however, that policy may have to be expanded.

Last July, the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine, which had been reviewing the specifications of the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) issued a report saying that birth control is a preventive medicine and should be free for all women.

By the first of August, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a ruling requiring that insurance companies cover women's preventive services without co-pays or deductibles.

In addition to FDA-approved forms of birth control (and yes, that includes the morning-after pill), these preventive services include well-woman screenings, gestinal diabetes screenings, breast-feeding support and domestic violence screenings.

The biggest complication with the mandate, which was praised by most healthcare professionals, was the obvious contradiction with religious beliefs against contraception.

On Jan. 20, the HHS offered its solution: Religiously affiliated hospitals and schools have until Aug. 1, 2013 to provide the required healthcare plans covering contraceptives. (Churches and other houses of worship, however, are exempt.)

The response from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was swift and overwhelmingly negative.

"To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forging healthcare is literally unconscionable," Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, said in a statement.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and a Catholic, has introduced legislation that would exempt other Catholic institutions from the mandatory birth control coverage in an effort to protect "religious freedom."

Despite these strong reactions against the ruling, Catholics themselves are divided on calling it an infringement on religious expression. In actuality, according to The New York Times, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptives. No one, however, is forcing women to use contraception, and neither will the new mandate.

"It's not even like if they made a policy that you could be on birth control, every single person would be on it," Jendrzejewski said. "They should just give the option you can be on it."

"Having an option is, I don't think, against freedom of religion – forcing it would be," Bolen said. "But I don't think making it an option is."

In fact, employees at Fordham already have that option, according to Malara.

"There is a women's health provision law [in New York State] that Fordham complies with regarding preventative care," Malara said. "Fordham complies for employees but are not required by law to include this in the student health program; this is the debate going on presently and may change."

For now, female students who use oral contraceptives need to find alternative means of obtaining their prescriptions. While some students, like Jendrzejewski, can have their birth control mailed from home, others rely on Planned Parenthood, of which the closest location is still an hour commute in the Bronx.

These students would be the ones to benefit the most from having accessible birth control on campus, especially when as a community, there is limited discussion on healthy sexuality.

"I think it's important because young people are a very vulnerable population for sexually transmitted diseases and infection and, of course, pregnancy," Wolf said.

I consider the new ruling set forth by HHS a victory for women's health, but obviously not everyone agrees. As a nation, though, we now have choice: What takes precedence, religious expression or access to viable healthcare?

As a student here, I don't expect a complete change in Fordham's values and culture. I know better than to hope for a vending machine selling Plan B and pregnancy tests, like the one recently installed at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, at the very least, I hope that as a community we can have an honest dialogue about our students' sexual health – sooner or later, for better or worse. It is too important an issue to continue to ignore.