For It Before They Were Against It: Catholic Universities and Birth Control

3:00 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Bridgette Dunlap for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Birth control pills

Some Catholic universities were historic supporters of contraception.

If you weren’t eagerly checking the bishops’ blog for their feelings on your health insurance, you may not have known last week was Catholic Schools Week! I generally don’t participate in the bishops’ weeks (or fortnights), but I think this is an ideal moment to highlight the proud history of advocacy for contraceptive access at Catholic-affiliated Universities — which is relevant to all those lawsuits that won’t be going away now that His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan has spoken.

We begin at Notre Dame in 1966. Faculty members formed a group to advocate for government funding of family planning programs and advertised a statement of support in Catholic publications. They received over 500 signatures in under a month from Catholic clergy, nuns, lawyers, doctors, and faculty members  at Catholic universities, including the deans of Notre Dame and Santa Clara’s law schools. The Notre Dame professor chairing the committee told the New York Times the group wished to emphasize that “in a pluralistic society, some legislation may be desirable even though it may not be in accord with the moral principles of a minority of the society’s members.”

The chairman explained that the impetus for the group’s formation had been an address by the Rev. Dexter L. Hanley to the American Bar Association arguing for government family planning programs. Father Hanley was a law professor at Georgetown University. Yes, that Georgetown. The same Georgetown that trained a lawyer named Sandra Fluke. Father Hanley also testified before a congressional subcommittee in support of access to contraception. So when Sandra Fluke did the same thing, not only was she acting like a lawyer, which is presumably what one attends Georgetown Law to learn to do, she was following in the footsteps of a revered Georgetown professor and priest who had inspired Catholics across the country to take action.

Though Fluke is regularly accused of demanding government funding for contraception, what she actually testified about was the sub-par plan available to Georgetown students (who are required to have health insurance). Typically, student health plans involve students paying money to a third-party health insurance company; neither government nor university funds are involved in these transactions. Father Hanley, however, was indeed advocating for taxpayer-funded contraception and education. He acknowledged Catholic teaching against contraception but testified that he could firmly maintain his moral positions as a Catholic while supporting a government program that “permits each citizen a fully free moral choice in matters of family planning, and aids him in implementing this choice.”

Today, rather than permitting its students a “fully free moral choice” as Father Hanley advocated, Georgetown has taken advantage of the safe harbor from the contraceptive coverage requirements, claiming it has a religious belief that bars providing insurance that covers contraception. This is hard to believe given that faculty members’ health plans have included contraceptive coverage for years. Also, Georgetown hosted an excellent conference on the Health and Human Services regulation where most scholars rejected the claim that providing coverage violated Catholic doctrine or that requiring it violated the law. The robust defenses of Sandra Fluke from the University President and the law school faculty were lovely, but fixing the problem she testified about is what’s needed.

Let’s return to Notre Dame. From 1963 to 1967 Notre Dame held an annual “Conference on Population.” The conference, organized with the help of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was intended from its inception to be a forum to develop a more liberal Catholic position on contraception. In 1965, thirty-seven scholars who attended the conference sent a statement to the Pope that declared “[t]here is dependable evidence that contraception is not intrinsically immoral, and that therefore there are certain circumstances in which it may be permitted or indeed even recommended.” Notre Dame’s President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, later got his friend John D. Rockefeller a secret meeting with the Pope to discuss the problem of overpopulation.

Despite this history, the University has now claimed in its lawsuit that Notre Dame, whoever that is, has a sincere religious belief that the Church’s “centuries’ old teachings” prohibit coverage. This is despite the fact that its own theology students and faculty can’t get their questions answered about what the theological claim for the prohibition of contraceptive coverage is and people like Kathleen Kaveny, a professor of both law and theology at Notre Dame, have argued the legality of the mandate in detail. A further troubling sign from an institution that was once the place for principled discussion of contraception, is that Notre Dame’s website refers students to what appears to be a “Crisis Pregnancy Center.” When I called up the “Women’s Care Center,” they told me they do not actually have doctors on staff or prescribe contraception.

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