Last week, the Fordham Law School chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice held an off-campus clinic to provide access to birth control prescriptions and condoms to students of our Catholic University. It was a greater success than we had hoped for. Once we were in a room packed with students meeting with doctors and having important conversations with each other, it felt totally removed from the fear, drama and controversy that led up to the event. Forty students received prescriptions and two or three times that number came out to show their support.
I was especially grateful for the opportunity to talk with smart, thoughtful undergraduates from both the Bronx and Manhattan campuses and I hope that going forward law school students will be more involved in our larger university community. 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 more on their campuses. Unfortunately, the University forbade us from doing so.
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 campus culture of secrecy and denial of the fact that some students are sexually active isn’t creating the conditions for that.
I hope that the conversations started at the clinic will lead to collaboration between law students and undergraduates to make Fordham a better place for women and all students. Fordham law students, many of us active in public service and activism throughout the world, can be a greater resource in our own community. We should know about the obstacles the undergraduates face in their efforts to improve the University’s sexual assault policy or to put up the Vagina Monologues. Fordham Law is training us to be skilled and dedicated advocates; we can help.
This is not to say that we are advocates with a track record of fast results. While the clinic itself was a huge success, it does not seem to have significantly changed the University’s unwillingness to tell us what its policies are. Its statements to the press indicate only that they will think about updating the website. This is unacceptable. We deserve to know if there is a health exception to the as of yet unwritten no-contraception policy. If there is, we need to know what medical conditions are covered and of what severity. We need to know if health center staff are qualified or authorized to diagnose these conditions. We also deserve to know what the condom policy is. Is possession forbidden or just distribution? What about giving a condom to a friend? It is pretty difficult to respect the “institutional conscience” of a University that won’t write its rules down, let alone explain the underlying Catholic principles they claim to be promoting.
Perhaps the most exasperating, and in my view harmful, response to our demands that the University document its policies and allow us to work around them are the various iterations of “you should have known” or “it’s you own fault for going to a Catholic school.” (I’m looking at you, supposedly-liberal Jezebel commenters). This is a problematic idea for a number of reasons. First of all, it paints Catholics and Catholic institutions as monolithically rigid, unreasonable and beholden to the Vatican. That is not true of the Catholics I know or grew up with and that is not true of any of the Catholic schools I have attended. 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, and it might endanger any state or federal funding it has if it did. There is nothing special about Catholic institutions that exempt them from accurately describing the services they sell. The implication that none of them would provide standard health care or do other things that aren’t papally-approved, such as allow LGBTQ student groups on campus or provide benefits to the same-sex partners of faculty members or fund scholarship contrary to Catholic doctrine, is inaccurate and offensive. It rests on stereotypes of Catholics and ignores the fact that we contract with the institution, not the Pope.
Secondly, treating any religion as monolithic silences internal dissent. I will try not to get too deep into the political theory here, but basically the idea that “if you don’t like it you can leave” is harmful to women and other less powerful members of a religion or institution. When reformers are pushed out of a group, it strengthens conservative norms and the power of those with an interest in the status quo, leaving vulnerable group members who can’t or don’t want to exit the group at their mercy. (Fun fact: I used to think Catholicism was especially impervious to reform because of the infallibility of the Pope, but it turns out, as I learned from a Fordham theologian, he isn’t infallible, only certain teachings are. And Humanae Vitae isn’t one of them.) It is important to make trouble where there is injustice rather than leaving or silently accepting the supposedly inevitable.
Third, and most importantly, Catholic influence affects everyone. That Fordham women don’t have notice that they will have to pay an extra $100 for their first world healthcare is not the biggest problem on the planet, but it speaks to a much larger issue. Groups that claim to speak for Catholics are extremely powerful. This is evident in the US Conference of Bishops having the ear of the President to argue Catholic institutions shouldn’t have to abide by the same Health and Human Services rules as everyone else who provides insurance. In many other instances, however, this influence is under- recognized. For example, how many people know that if an ambulance takes a woman having a septic miscarriage to the nearest hospital and that hospital turns out to be Catholic, the hospital may be able to let her die rather than perform an abortion but be protected from liability? How many people know how extreme the Catholic Healthcare Directives are or how they might affect one’s treatment for an ectopic pregnancy? The secrecy and inattention to women’s health exhibited by the University’s failure to give us the website update we’ve been asking for also underlies larger, potentially life-threatening issues. We need to fix them in our communities if we hope to fix them in the world.
Going forward, Fordham LSRJ will keep working to get documentation of the University’s policies on its website, and we expect we will need to hold another clinic a year from now, if not sooner.