Sunday, February 7, 2016

Access to Free Contraceptives: Church versus State

A case occurring at the University of Notre Dame sheds light on the ongoing debate of the controversial topic of women’s rights regarding the reproductive system, a debate that seeps into the broader, more fundamental debate of church and state.

This case brings into question whether or not the university, a religiously affiliated Catholic school, exemplifies an unconstitutional establishment of free exercise of religion by offering contraception coverage to both students and staff. The Affordable Care Act provides this coverage. Because this act is one originating within the federal government, an additional controversial concern thus arises: whether or not the school can justly restrict contraception coverage because it disagrees with the religious beliefs and practices of Catholicism, more specifically the belief that no contraception should be used when taking part in sexual activity.

In February 2012, the federal government announced that religious institutions were able to opt-out of funding contraception themselves, simply by stating that they wished to do so by informing the government of their objection. Then, the government would ensure that a third-party insurer be arranged to provide the contraception to the institution. The University of Notre Dame initially accepted the ACA’s accommodation for contraception. Americans United, the group representing the woman requesting contraception coverage at the university, states in their brief, “In keeping with this determination that its religious exercise was not burdened by requesting an exemption from the contraceptive-coverage regulations, the university initially decided to take advantage of the accommodation voluntarily; it filed this lawsuit only after a powerful alumni association pressured it to litigate because of ‘the symbolic importance of Notre Dame’ to the ongoing legal challenges to the contraceptive-coverage regulations,”.

The university has attempted to have this case reviewed by the Supreme Court on four different occasions and has seen no success. “Even as Notre Dame’s lawyers challenge the accommodation in court, Notre Dame’s leadership admits that there is no burden on the university’s religious exercise,” said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “This lawsuit is designed to do one thing and only one thing: prevent women—including our client, Jane Doe—from receiving contraceptive coverage to which they are entitled by law.”

Americans United agrees that the case should not be reviewed until other related cases regarding challenges to contraception coverage at religiously affiliated non-profits come to the forefront.

The executive director of Americans United stated, “Notre Dame knows full well that its religious beliefs are in no way harmed when a third-party provides certain forms of health care to its students and staff. Its lawsuit is baseless and appears to have been filed mainly due to pressure from wealthy alumni who oppose birth control.”

In this case, my opinion is that the university cannot interfere with an individual’s right granted to them by the state, particularly because it a right that fundamentally addresses a person’s physical self and individual freedom, one that I believe is incredibly important and valuable. This freedom should always be considered initially, but especially in this case, as the population that makes up the generation currently in college and entering adulthood is entitled to the proper physical care and freedom they were and are granted. The absence of this freedom would have drastic negative implications on their physical health and well being, as well as their futures.

The university overtly exemplified hypocrisy by retracting its original statement of agreement with the ACA’s accommodations, only based off the potential financial threat imposed upon the university by alumni disagreeing with the use of contraception as a Catholic believer. Jane Doe’s struggles are not isolated, as many people struggle to find contraceptive methods that are affordable and effective. Notre Dame is portraying a sad yet accurate reality of this country: money is the driving force behind many influential decisions made amongst church and state.

I am hoping that people view Jane Doe as an example that represents many struggling people, and not just one person at a religiously affiliated university. I also hope that Notre Dame alumni realize the various negative implications being caused by the university’s decision in making this a financial priority instead of one based on compassion and equality.

What do you think? Why is this issue important, and what complexities accompany the differing elements in this case? How can we use this case to be beneficial for college students’ accommodations and freedoms in the future, and ensure that individuals receive what is granted to them?


Hannah L. said...

I am in agreement that the University of Notre Dame must allow coverage of contraception to both students and staff using the Affordable Care Act. Although the university itself is a Catholic school, every individual, whether or not they are religious, has the right to obtain health care and the means to take care of their bodies in the way they see fit. Even the school itself has said that it has no problem with this coverage being provided to its students, which goes to show that it is a right of all citizens of Indiana and the United States as a whole. I believe that in almost all cases, the safety and health of individuals should trump religious beliefs. So for Notre Dame and all other religious universities, I think that contraceptive coverage should always be provided.

Natalie K. said...

I agree with your position on this issue, and I believe the agreement that was reached between the University of Notre Dame and the Affordable Care Act in 2012 was extremely reasonable. A religious institution should not be coerced into providing contraceptives to students and staff if they go against its religious beliefs. However, a third party should then be able to intervene and provide contraceptives because the Affordable Care Act provides coverage for contraceptives and this is an act established by the federal government. It is unfair for Notre Dame to then retract its original agreement with the ACA due to the only fact that wealthy alumni disagreed with the motion.

Maddie G said...

In this case, I entirely agree with Sedona. The University, regardless of its religious affiliation, should not get to make medical decisions for others by restricting access to contraception. The birth control provisions were added to the ACA in order to ensure widespread access to contraception which serves the economic and social goals of society. Denying these rights to those affiliated with the University is, in my opinion, akin to the University forcing it’s religious beliefs on others and restricting their access to vital medical care.

Maddie G said...

In this case I would have to agree that the fact that the state officials running the meeting are the ones leading the prayer is extremely important. Even though those who object have the option of leaving the room or not participating, state officials are essentially choosing a religion and sanctioning its practice by opening each meeting with a prayer, even if that practice is not inherently coercive. In my view, this is a pretty simple violation of the establishment clause, which clearly favors those who ascribe to the majority religion of the town.