This article originally appeared in The Nation and is reprinted with permission.
Despite several letters and numerous protests requesting dialogue with the school administration, it wasn’t until three students duct-taped their mouths and chained themselves to a statue for eight hours that the university finally responded, informing the protesting students by mail that a meeting would indeed be held.
The students were part of a campaign called “Plan A: Hoyas for Reproductive Justice,” led by two student groups United Feminists and H*yas for Choice, who combined forces earlier this year for a campaign protesting the lack of reproductive health services provided by the university.
This normally wouldn’t be so contentious an issue for an American university, except for the fact that this is Georgetown, a distinctly Catholic Jesuit University, where contraception is discouraged and student organizations are forbidden from advocating for anything that runs counter to Catholic teachings.
The Plan A campaign has met with both resistance and praise from students and faculty. But the students continue to vocalize their demands: condoms and other forms of contraception made available on campus, information about contraception readily available to students, assistance provided to victims of sexual assault and the same free speech rights given to all student groups no matter what they are advocating.
Perhaps because students don’t have to be Catholic to attend the university, many undergraduates have embraced the campaign’s goals. H*yas for Choice hands out condoms on campus twice a week. Last year over 4,500 condoms were given out, a statistic that, as a member of H*yas for Choice Erica Slates told The Washington Post, shows the need for easier access to contraception on campus.
Despite the group’s optimism, many students see its goals as a waste of time, or even inappropriate, because Georgetown’s policy does not allow university funds to contradict Catholic teachings. Just like the two required Christian theology classes that every student must take, some students feel it is a contradiction to demand contraception from a Catholic university that students knowingly choose to attend. Even the editors of the student newspaper The Hoya bashed the protestors, calling their demands “unrealistic and misguided” because “the university should not be expected to stray from Catholic doctrine to accommodate demands for the availability of on-campus contraceptives.”
But Julia Shindel, a member of the Plan A campaign, insists that this is a health issue, not a religious or ideological one. “While this is a Catholic institution, this is also a university,” Shindel said. “We do not have access to information or resources that are our rights as university students.”
The Hoya’s editorial stance was echoed in a statement from Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson, who said, “as a Catholic and Jesuit University, we hold fast to our core values, and we remain committed to policies and approaches that reflect our identity.”
Though Olson’s statement addresses the contraception issue, it does not address Plan A’s demands for free speech to all student organizations. Though United Feminists is officially recognized by the university, H*yas for Choice is not because it labels themselves as a pro-choice group. The group cannot even use the Hoya word in their name because it is the mascot, so they use an asterisk for the “o” instead.
According to Kristina Mitchell, a member of United Feminists who attended the recent meeting on Tuesday, the administration members in attendance “expressed a willingness to try to make things work.” They committed to allowing campus ambulances to provide free transportation to the nearest hospital with rape kits, and they agreed to streamline the process for removing financial barriers to the HPV vaccine.
On April 13th, members of the campaign will meet with the administration again to discuss their other goals, including the issues of free speech and university recognition for H*yas for Choice. “We’re not endorsing any viewpoints that go against Catholic teaching,” Mitchell explained. “We’re asking the university to allow for a full range of ideas…for open dialogue…and allowing for full choice to exist on campus.”
No matter your views on the availability of contraceptives on campus, silencing certain groups has no place at any university, including those that advocate a certain religious ideology. Georgetown needs to follow through on its self-proclaimed mission of fostering free speech, recognize H*yas for Choice as a legitimate student organization whose voice is allowed a place on campus and allow access to and information about reproductive health services for those students who want it. After Tuesday’s meeting, the students of Plan A are optimistic. After all, “it’s just the beginning,” Shindel reminded.