Do Religiously Affiliated Universities Act as a Barrier to Access to Contraception for College Women?


Emily Stephens at Zubik v. Burwell rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court / Photo Credit:

WASHINGTON, DC— Emily Stephens is one of many women on college campuses across the United States who is being denied access to contraception by her university. Although Stephens is personally able to access birth control from her parent’s health insurance plan, she notes that not all female students at her Jesuit university have this privilege. The disparity in access to contraception has encouraged her and members of H*yas for Choice, a student group that is not recognized by Georgetown University, to pass out condoms and pamphlets explaining safe sex practices.

H*yas for Choice has identified a barrier many women on religiously affiliated college campuses are facing—contraception is simply not available. Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States, grounds its education and university policies in Jesuit values, according to its mission statement. The university’s religious ideologies have influenced policies banning the sale and distribution of contraceptives on campus, leaving sexually active female students without campus resources for preventing unplanned pregnancies.

“Personally for me getting pregnant at this point in my life would be the worst thing to ever happen to me and I feel like a lot of other women are in that position, and to not have control over whether or not that happens is really, really scary,” Emily Stephens, the organizing coordinator for H*yas for Choice said.

Stephens is not alone in her search for family planning services to avoid unplanned pregnancy. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 62 percent of women of reproductive age in the United States use at least one form of contraception and 99 percent of women aged 15-24 who have engaged in sexual intercourse have used contraception at least once. On college campuses, 40 percent of women report specifically using prescribed oral contraceptives as their main means for preventing unwanted pregnancy, according to the American College Health Association, an advocacy and research organization focused on the health of college students.


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Infographic created by Emma Thomas


Despite the high demand and use of contraception among college-aged women, many female students like Stephens are running into barriers accessing contraception while at college.

In the case of two private Washington, D.C. universities– Catholic University of America and Georgetown University– the religious affiliations of the institutions are a significant factor into their students’ lack of accessibility to contraception.

At both Georgetown University and Catholic University of America, the sale of condoms is prohibited whether the university owns the campus store or it is rented by a third party. Student health centers, resident assistants and recognized student groups are not permitted to distribute condoms on campus. Stephens says the closest place Georgetown students can purchase condoms is at a nearby CVS about a mile walk from the front gates of the university.

Every day, rain or shine, H*yas for Choice members sit behind a table and pass out condoms and sexual health information in Georgetown University’s Red Square, the designated free speech area on campus, according to Stephens. As the organizing coordinator of the club, Stephens has been leading the organization’s efforts to pressure university administration to expand free speech areas on campus and to permit third-party campus stores to sell condoms. Her long term goals for the organization are for students to be able to obtain birth control from the student health center for pregnancy prevention purposes, and for H*yas for Choice to become a recognized club. The organization’s most recent success was getting permission from the university to allow members to tape envelopes filled with condoms to their personal dormitory doors, so that all students had access to free condoms.

While some students like Stephens and other H*yas for Choice members oppose the religious mandates creating barriers to accessing contraception, other students say they are in support of the policies. “I came to this school knowing it had a lot of Catholic identity and it’s right that we are following that tradition of a Catholic school to not support any contraception or abortion,” Michael Khan, president of Georgetown University’s Right To Life, a pro-life student club, said.

Khan is a sophomore at Georgetown University and grew up passionate about the right-to-life movement. He joined Right to Life his freshman year to help plan the university’s national Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, which Khan says is the largest pro-life conference in the country. “We don’t really take a perspective on contraception,” Khan said. “We just have abortion, death penalty, and euthanasia, and we obviously oppose all those.” He says Georgetown’s Jesuit values are a foundational component of the education at the university, which is why Right to Life supports the school’s anti-contraception policy.

Georgetown University declined to comment on its anti-contraception policy for this story, but according to the Student Health Services section of their website, student health insurance plans provided by the university do not cover contraceptive services for the purpose of preventing pregnancy.

“The organization that sponsors your health plan has certified that it qualifies for a temporary enforcement safe harbor with respect to the Federal requirement to cover contraceptive services without cost sharing. Coverage under your health plan will not include coverage of contraceptive services.” (Retrieved from Georgetown University’s Student Health Services website under the frequently asked questions page).

The one exception to this policy is if birth control medication is requested “for treatment of a covered sickness.” Stephens says this exception allows women on campus to get prescriptions for birth control without the university breaking their religious obligations to the Catholic Church. “If you want it for contraceptive purposes you have to lie and want it for acne control or period control,” Stephens said. “So it is possible. But only if you are willing to lie to get it.”

Khan said this exception is not the only instance where the university is lenient in regards to the Catholic faith, mentioning that the university is allowing a recognized student group to bring Planned Parenthood president Cecil Richards to campus to speak. “She’s using university resources and even though she’s not getting a direct fee— there’s a lot of costs involved coming from the university,” Khan said.

According to Khan, Right to Life is organizing a protest for the day of Cecil Richards’ speech. “We’re continuing to work to make sure Georgetown emphasizes pro-life because I think these last few years they haven’t emphasized as much,” Khan said. Sometimes even Georgetown sends conflicting messages. We’re a Catholic school, but by most accounts we’re the most progressive Catholic school.”

The policy exception allowing Georgetown University students to access contraception for medical reasons originates from a mandate by the Affordable Care Act, which legally requires that all employer-provided insurance plans include complete coverage for contraception. For universities, this federal law applies to insurance plans for both staff and students.

Churches, places of worship and non-profit religious organizations—including universities and hospitals—can be exempt from this contraception mandate for religious opposition to the use of contraception. To be exempt, these religiously affiliated entities must explain why they object to the mandate in a two-page form.

Stephens says Georgetown University prides itself in founding its teaching in Jesuit values, including “care for the whole person.” “And if you look at care for the whole person, part of the whole person is your reproductive organs and what they need to make choices for themselves and your own happiness,” Stephens said. “I think there’s a really strong case to be made that they need to value the sexual health of their students over this small aspect of Catholic theology.”

Catholic University takes an arguably stricter approach than Georgetown University in restricting access to contraception. Unlike Georgetown University, employees of Catholic University are not entitled to health insurance that covers contraception use, and students are unable to request birth control prescriptions for medical reasons.

In addition, Catholic University has had strong involvement in efforts by religiously affiliated universities to oppose the two-page exemption form requirement. According to Robert Tuttle, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University Law School, their argument is that submitting the exemption form is an undue burden to their institutions.

Currently, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing a case addressing this opposition in Zubik v. Burwell. The case against the Affordable Care Act mandate is a compilation of seven different cases, but is being led by Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Church at the Diocese of Pittsburg. Geneva College and East Texas Baptist University are also plaintiffs in the case. The defendant is Syliva Burwell, the secretary of the United States Health and Services.

“The government says there is no statutory burden on their religious exercise by simply requiring them to turn in a piece of paper,” Tuttle said. He says the main question will be whether or not the plaintiffs can successfully articulate a distinction between the forms being an undue burden and their moral opposition to contraception, when asking for this exemption. “If they frame it as wanting to block an individual’s legally protected conduct, then it is very difficult to sustain that as a legitimate argument,” he said. “If this is the argument that the religious lawyers make, there is a good chance it’ll be a five to three vote in favor of the government.”


In lieu of comment for this story, Catholic University administration provided a written statement of an oral testimony university president John Garvey gave on February 12, 2016 to the U.S. Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Garvey testified on behalf of Catholic University’s opposition to being required to submit the two-page exemption form. “The rule forces us to deny in one part of our operation what we affirm in another. We teach our students in our classes, in our sacraments and in the activities of Student Life and Campus Ministry that sterilization, contraception and abortion are wrong,” Garvey said in his testimony to the Congressional committee. “The rule requires our Human Resources staff to offer these very services to our students at no additional cost, as part of our health insurance program. It makes hypocrites of us all, in the most important lessons we teach.”

Katie Sharma, a senior studying political science and Islamic world studies at Catholic University of America, said she understands the administration’s position. “It’s not that you can’t use contraception, it’s that they aren’t willing to pay for it because part of the Catholic faith is that sex should be between a man and a woman, but the biggest reason is that the point of sex is to have kids,” Sharma said. “Basically the answer our university always gives is like, what you want to do with your life isn’t our business, but you can’t expect us to pay for something that is morally against our teachings.”

Sharma has been vocal on campus about her opposition to contraception and support for Catholic University’s policies stating that the university will not pay for students’ contraception as it morally conflicts with the Catholic values of the institution. “Because Catholic University is the only university in the world that was chartered by the Vatican and by the Pope, they have to follow Catholic teachings very closely,” Sharma said. “You did choose to come to the Catholic University of America, so you kind of have to understand that with that, and with the affiliation with the Vatican, is going to come certain teachings.”

Unlike Georgetown University, Sharma says there is a not a strong presence of pro-choice advocates on Catholic University’s campus. To her knowledge there are no student groups campaigning the university to change its anti-contraception policies and there are not efforts to find unofficial ways to distribute contraception the way H*yas for Choice has done.

Sharma says students’ health should be a priority of universities, but sexual health—particularly access and use of contraception and abortion—is not a critical element of wellbeing. “Any issue to do with health should be funded if its necessary and not against the Catholic teachings,” Sharma said. She does not believe Catholic University, or any private university—religiously affiliated or not—should be responsible or required to provide funding for contraception or for insurance plans that include coverage for contraception. “Especially with religious and private universities it should be up to their decision. They’re their own institutions and every student makes a conscious decision to go to a private or religiously affiliated university,” she said.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Zubik v. Burwell on March 23, 2016. In an atypical move, the Court asked the plaintiff and the defendant to file supplemental briefs addressing whether or not and how employees whose companies have religious exemptions could receive contraception coverage from third-party insurance companies in a way that does not involve the employer. On April 20, 2016 responses to the supplemental briefs were due. The Court will have to come to a decision on the case before summer recess begins at the end of June.


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