Students march for reproductive rights
Kelli Smith | Wednesday, October 11, 2017
The Graduate Workers Collective of Notre Dame hosted a demonstration Tuesday at Main Building to peacefully protest the University’s stance on a recent mandate by the Trump administration regarding health insurance.
Titled “March for Reproductive Freedom,” the demonstration arose as a response to a statement released by University President Fr. John Jenkins on Friday. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced two mandates earlier that day, which reversed a rule created under former President Barack Obama’s administration. The rule required employers to offer health insurance — including all FDA-approved contraceptives — to employees with few exceptions, according to the HHS website.
Jenkins’ statement said the University “welcome[s] the reversal” of the rule. Under the new ordinances implemented by the Trump administration, employers no longer have to cover health services to which they object for religious or moral reasons.
Undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff from across campus attended the hour-long rally in opposition to the statement. According to an event organizer, graduate student Kate Bermingham, the demonstration was intended to voice objections to Notre Dame’s “apparent intention to obstruct its employees’ ability to access contraception.”
“Notre Dame does not have a just claim to saddle me or other individuals it employs with the expenses of its conscience,” Bermingham said in an email. “It is extremely important to voice opposition to our university’s patriarchal attempt to control the bodies and reproductive choices of its employees. Given the current political climate in the country, it is imperative to publicly resist the attempts of those in power to use their authority in ways that are inappropriate.”
Bermingham said because Notre Dame is not paying for contraception, they have “no business” preventing their employees from obtaining it, and the University’s position is on “shaky theological, philosophical and moral grounds.”
“While I believe that Fr. Jenkins is doing what he thinks is right, I would ask him to seriously consider whether, as a matter of practical faith, it is more in keeping with Catholic values to force women to make health care choices based on what they can afford rather than on what they deem to be best for their physical and emotional well-being,” Bermingham said.
If the University gets to say what constitutes a violation of its conscience and religious liberty, Bermingham said, women should get to say what constitutes a harm to their persons.
“It is impossible to overlook the gendered implications of Notre Dame’s claims to be exercising religious freedom in this instance,” she said. “Women who work for Notre Dame will disproportionately bear the burden of their employer’s attempt to live out its faith. Many of these women are low-income, earning hourly wages or living on graduate stipends. Let’s recall that in the broader American economy, women make 80 cents on the dollar, and that within academia, women are disadvantaged in a whole host of ways, which Notre Dame’s policy exacerbates, whatever its intentions.”
When asked about the demonstration, University spokesman Dennis Brown said the University has tried to make clear that its position on the matter is not about contraception, but rather about religious freedom.
“We are not trying to stop anyone from using contraceptives,” Brown said in an email. “If they want to, that’s their right. But we do think that the previous policy was a direct encroachment on the First Amendment right to religious liberty, with the government requiring organizations that oppose contraception on religious grounds to act as an agent in the distribution of contraception. That is why we support the change announced last week.”
Brown said Notre Dame provides contraceptives in health plans when prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons other than birth control.
“The University is committed to the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” Brown said. “We understand that many of them have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs.”
Graduate student Margie Housley said she heard about the march through social media and decided to attend because she believes it is important all people have access to “all the health care they need.”
“Fundamentally, it is not the right of an employer to take their own religious beliefs and use that to force people to make decisions about their health care, which become economic decisions if they’re not covered by health care,” Housley said. “So really, it’s Notre Dame taking their religious beliefs and enforcing them on their employees.”
Housley, who carried a sign reading “Bodily Autonomy For All,” said she spoke at the march about “corpses having more bodily autonomy legally than women do” when women are unable to make choices about their health care.
“I think the most important thing for me was making sure that our voices were heard in some way,” Housley said. “I don’t expect that protests necessarily in and of themselves create change, but I think they’re a really important way to allow people to be heard and to make sure that the people who are in power understand how they’re affecting other people’s lives.”
Freshman Derek Dellisola said he was alerted to the demonstration after hearing chants such as “Shame, Shame on Notre Dame” when walking from class. After approaching the gathering out of curiosity, he said he decided to pitch a question about the University’s rights as a private institution for clarification purposes and to participate in a “mutually engaging debate.”
“The problem with this school is I see a lot of kids who, coming in, know that the school doesn’t really have policies that favor them but they come in anyway and then try to change it,” Dellisola said. “My logic is you knew when you applied to this school that it wouldn’t be a place for you. Even though it’s not half as hateful as you make it out to be, it wouldn’t be a place that you agree with, so why do you come here anyway? It’s like going onto a baseball team and saying, ‘Where the hell is the quarterback?’”
Dellisola attended the event with his friend, freshman Ellis Riojas, who said he didn’t feel comfortable asking questions he had at the demonstration after observing what he considered an “aggressive mindset” and “emotional undertones” in the group’s response to Dellisola’s question.
“We see this kind of aggression because they’ve received something from the University and they’re unsatisfied with what it’s giving them,” Riojas said. “Because of that, [ralliers are] coming up here and protesting, saying, ‘You need to give us more,’ but they have no right to demand that from a University that’s giving it to them in a contract that they mutually agreed to.”
Dellisola said despite his difference of opinion on the topic as well as disagreement with some of the ralliers’ signs, including one he said read “F— Like a Champion Today,” he doesn’t regret attending the demonstration and believes he reached a better understanding of the matter through his attendance.
“I was just looking to get clarification, because it’s something that I by instinct object to, but I was hoping to go and hear what they had to say and maybe learn from them, and I think I did,” Dellisola said. “I learned that the issue is not as simple as it seems, but I will say that I still do not agree with them. I was just interested because you don’t really see this every day.”