Alfaro: Notre Dame’s decision to revoke birth control access dangerous for women

Mariana Alfaro, Opinion Editor

Last week, the University of Notre Dame announced its insurance plan will no longer cover birth control for students, faculty and staff. This makes Notre Dame one of the first institutions in the nation to take advantage of new guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that allow employers to use religious objections to avoid providing birth control. This also means hundreds of women at Notre Dame will lose free access to birth control coverage.

In an email to NPR, Notre Dame made it clear that this measure was taken to honor “the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.” The university will continue providing birth control coverage if it’s used to treat a medical condition. However, at the end of the day, this is yet another threat to women’s health, this time coming from a prestigious university, an educational leader, an entity that shares the same religious background as me.

Even though I like to think I’m a pretty good Roman Catholic, I am not going to pretend I align with some of Catholicism’s most salient doctrines. First up, I believe in equality for the LGBTQ community, but that’s an entirely separate column on its own right. On women’s health and the stigma surrounding their right to chose, I believe the church’s teachings are misguided. For both of these, I like to apply a bit from John 2:9 that says: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”

If you’re Catholic but do not believe in LGBTQ rights, you’re in the dark. If you’re Catholic and don’t believe that women should be able to choose, you’re in the dark.

This is quite the can of worms to open, and I am clearly truncating many of these arguments for the purposes of a 700-word column, so I’ll sum it up to this: as a Roman Catholic, Notre Dame’s decision is not only embarrassing, it also puts women in danger. As a Northwestern student, I recognize the privilege I have of attending a non-denominational university that does not put its affiliations over my right to choose. Though I know Notre Dame is doing this in observance of its own interpretation of Catholicism, it is disheartening to know that hundreds of women under the university’s insurance — many of whom may not be Catholic — will lose protections that many of us outside Notre Dame take for granted.

I grew up in El Salvador, an incredibly Catholic country and one of the few where abortion is banned under all circumstances. The society I was raised in believes in abstinence-only sex-ed, and I was introduced to birth control pills only after my doctor prescribed them for a medical condition. My Catholic environment demonized women who were sexually active and made thinking about sex, as a woman, an embarrassment. The shame, of course, never fell on the men. I only escaped this cycle once I made it to NU, a fairly liberal and sex-positive campus where I can freely get birth control thanks to my student insurance. It was a relief.

But my friends who attend Notre Dame are now subject to similar restrictions as the ones we had growing up. By removing these protections, Notre Dame is exercising its right to religious liberty. I can’t argue against that. But beyond policy and regulations, we must remember that at the end of the day, the ones who are truly affected are those losing their protections, those whose freedom of choice is put at risk by having their access to birth control jeopardized.

When the Trump administration first introduced these changes, I fully expected some Catholic institutions to embrace them instantly. But, perhaps naively, I did not expect Notre Dame to be the first because of its status as a place of learning — home to hundreds of sexually active students and employees.

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who served as Notre Dame’s president for 35 years and is widely lauded as the leader who innovated the university, once said that modern, Catholic universities would run with “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

I can’t speak for the late Hesburgh, but I wonder if the progressive, Catholic man behind massive Notre Dame milestones would have backed this one.

Mariana Alfaro is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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