A midwestern Catholic university usually in the news for its football program has decided to take a stand against women's reproductive rights. Using the new Trump administration rules, the University of Notre Dame rescinded birth control coverage for all students, faculty, and staff that belong to the school's health plan.
This will affect up to 90 percent of 5,825 faculty and staff, as well as the 705 undergraduates, and 2,315 graduate and professional students who have university coverage, Vox reported. Not all of those currently take advantage of birth control coverage (some are cisgender men).
The plan was announced last Friday in letters to students and employees, noting that the university "honors the moral teachings of the Catholic Church," but the move had been expected for quite some time. The school has long been opposed to the coverage, even suing in 2015 to drop birth control from its insurance package in a lawsuit they ultimately lost. Brigitte Amiri, who heads the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project, explained to Indiana Public Radio why this didn't come as a surprise:
The Trump Administration Policy allows Notre Dame to declare a wholesale exemption and to not even allow their insurance company to provide the coverage, so we anticipated that Notre Dame would be revoking contraception coverage if given the opportunity. ... No matter where a woman works or goes to school she should have coverage for basic health care services like contraceptives regardless of the purpose used for the contraception.
One of the students who will be affected is Maria Ignacia Vasquez, a 22-year-old senior studying marketing and gender studies who likes to go by Ina or Ignacia. She, along with Luciana Jansen, Emily Garrett, founded the group Feminist ND about two years ago to be an advocate for feminism on campus. Because of Notre Dame rules, the group itself remains neutral in the debate (they're only allowed to agree with the administration, not come out against the birth control policy).
Vasquez, however, as a student and individual, is against it — she's on the school insurance. While she should graduate before the policy comes into effect, Vazquez tells Bustle she's against the school's decision:
It doesn't feel like the university cares about its female students and faculty. We're literally half the university, and the message this sends is that our rights and our needs are not as important. It's also frustrating because I would've hoped there had been more transparency about who is making these decisions: Were there women involved at all? We don't know, because they don't tell us that.
Emily Garrett, the president of Feminist ND and a senior studying English and gender studies, is lucky enough not to be on the school's insurance, but she's still affected anyway by school birth control policy. Garrett tells Bustle that she's not even allowed to fill her contraception prescription at the school pharmacy unless she has a doctor's note explaining it's for medical reasons: "A lot of students are having their doctors lie now to give an excuse, and now it's going to get a lot tighter."
The ACLU has already taken the Trump administration to court over the rules that allowed this to happen. Before, only religious institutions were given opt-outs for coverage, but not hospitals or universities connected to religious groups.
Now, thanks to the Trump administration, that has changed, as the Health and Human Services and Justice Departments jointly announced the change in policy for the contraception mandate last month.
The new rules, two Interim Final Regulations or IFRs, affected all sorts of non-discrimination policy too, allowing religion to excuse discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, for example. But the clearest, concrete change comes in the form of birth control. That led the ACLU to sue, including a Notre Dame law student Kate Rochat as a plaintiff.
"No woman should ever be denied health care because her employer or university's religious views are prioritized over her serious medical needs," Rochat said in a statement.
Amiri said at the time of the filing, back on Oct. 6, that the legal issue was discrimination against women. "We're filing this lawsuit because the federal government cannot authorize discrimination against women in the name of religion or otherwise," Amiri said then.
The filing specifically reads:
The Religious Exemption IFR endorses and promotes certain religious beliefs at the expense of third parties. Both the Religious Exemption IFR and the Moral Exemption IFR discriminate against women by singling out for disfavored treatment health insurance that women use and that is essential for women's equality.
After Notre Dame made its announcement, another group also sued. The National Women's Law Center filed suit on behalf of five plaintiffs that would be affected by the Trump administration rules. Three of them are Notre Dame students.
NWLC President & CEO Fatima Goss Graves said in a statement that the move by the university is discrimination.
Blocking access to basic health care that 99 percent of women use at some point in their lives is unlawful, discriminatory and harmful. ... Everyone deserves birth control coverage, no matter where they work, how they are insured, or where they go to school. Our lawsuit aims to shut down this latest assault by President Trump on women's health, equality, and economic security.
The decision by the university will not take place immediately; faculty and staff are insured through Dec. 31, and students until Aug. 14, 2018. However, Garrett tells Bustle, graduate students will be among the most affected. Their limited stipend doesn't allow them the extra income needed to pay for birth control without insurance. Faculty and staff are also worried about their dependents, she says.
To Garrett, none of this is surprising. Notre Dame wasn't a co-ed institution until the 1970s, and Garrett says that although they're making progress, "women's reproductive health isn't a priority since it's a Catholic institution. Other private, religious institutions are not like this, but Notre Dame has the identity of the American Catholic university."
But while the school's conservative bent is evident in this health care decision, the backlash it has sparked could perhaps spur more change to come.