Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s community members reflect on issues particularly pertinent to women in the age of Trump
Courtney Becker and Martha Reilly | Monday, November 20, 2017
Editor’s note: This is the third story in a three-part series addressing various political issues and their impact at Notre Dame one year after the 2016 election. Today’s story focuses on issues that most frequently affect women at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.
The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, hundreds of thousands of women took to the streets for a series of women’s marches, drawing attention to challenges women face in the U.S. and their concerns that these challenges would increase during Trump’s time in office.
The national conversation surrounding the treatment of women in the U.S. continues on campus at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s a year after Trump’s election. From questions regarding potential changes in Title IX to Notre Dame’s flip-flopping stance on contraception coverage, these discussions have gained prominence in recent weeks.
Sophomore Jessica D’Souza said the Notre Dame administration’s decision to stop allowing its third-party health insurance providers to cover contraception — a decision the University administration overturned just over a week later — was the first tangible effect Trump’s presidency has had on campus since the election.
“The contraception thing is huge,” D’Souza said. “I’ve seen it shared from friends that don’t really know that I go to Notre Dame sharing it on their timelines like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the first effect that we’re really seeing in a way that directly impacts us.’ And it’s huge. I’ve seen it on news stories and in magazines and stuff.”
The decision attracted so much attention after Trump’s rollback of the Affordable Care Act allowed organizations to choose whether or not to cover contraception because Notre Dame was the first university to openly take advantage of the change in policy. Senior Emily Garrett, who wrote an open letter in response to the University’s announcement to no longer allow third-party health insurers to provide contraception for its employees, said she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the decision.
“It’s always to disappointing to hear that your employer or your place of higher education is suddenly just not covering your health care because they have a moral objection to it,” she said. “That’s just a weird concept to have to deal with — like something about my body or what I need to do to take care of my body is so offensive to you that you don’t want to help me do it. That’s kind of the vibe that we get, but it wasn’t shocking.”
The response to the decision was so strong, D’Souza said, because of the gender politics that would be involved in such a policy change.
“I know that people are afraid because … regardless of what your thought on contraception is, this is a policy that overwhelmingly affects women,” she said. “And the fact that the University is rolling back on contraception, to me, says somewhere that they don’t care about my education as much. Because we don’t have amazing pregnancy resources, we don’t have anything in place for women to take care of themselves.”
Saint Mary’s senior Christina Herrera, however, said she believes Notre Dame does not have the responsibility to allow its health care providers to cover contraception due to its Catholic identity.
“I think that the University needs to remember that it’s a Catholic school first and foremost and do everything accordingly,” Herrera said. “In reality, if women want [contraception], then they can buy it from the store. And honestly, if you can’t afford contraception or birth control or Plan B, you probably shouldn’t be having sex anyway.”
This stance, Garrett said, discriminates against lower-income members of the community and does not account for married faculty members who might not want to have more children. She also pointed out that the University would not be paying for anyone’s contraception — third-party health care providers such as Aetna and Meritain would be paying for it.
“I want this to be very, very clear — Notre Dame has never, nor will ever, pay for contraceptive care for their employees, students or staff,” she said. “ … I can’t tell you how many people have commented on articles or spoken to me in person and been like, ‘You can’t make a university pay for something they don’t believe in.’ But I’m like, ‘They’re not paying for it.’ They’re literally checking a box that says, yes, let Aetna cover it or no, don’t cover it.”
Even if the University was covering the cost of contraception, D’Souza said, University administrators would not have the right to make a decision about someone else’s body and health care. D’Souza said she believes the number of people who spoke out against the administration’s original announcement is what caused the decision to be reversed.
“I believe that the University is private and they can make a lot of decisions on their own,” she said. “But … if active members of this community have issues with health care … I think that the University as an entity that constantly talks about how it cares about student well-being, student health, student emotions [and] mental state, all that — I think that in order to uphold that claim, [the administration] also has an obligation to listen to what we have to say about things.”
The University’s and College’s identities as Catholic institutions have not only played a large role in the discussion surrounding contraception since Trump’s election, but have also come into play during discussions concerning abortion. Anna Byrnes, a junior at Saint Mary’s who identifies as pro-life, said she has received pushback on her pro-life stance as a student at the College.
“It’s very discouraging for me, especially in a Catholic community, because I am very pro-life,” she said. “I believe that life is sacred from conception to natural death, and so I’m not sure exactly why there’s so much division. Maybe it goes back to the root of what life is and what our role is in protecting life.”
Other students have changed their opinions since coming to college, however. Saint Mary’s senior Olivia Bensett said the intellectual debate surrounding the issue of abortion on campus has led to her rethinking her stance on the subject.
“My family is devout Catholics,” Bensett said. “I came to Saint Mary’s, and I was pro-life. But I’m leaving Saint Mary’s pro-choice. We’re constantly talking about the issues that impact women in classrooms, no matter what class you’re in. You could be in a mathematics classroom and still talk about women’s issues. You learn a lot from other girls talking about it.”
Students are beginning to expand these intellectual debates even further, with more community members paying attention to the issue of sexual assault. Notre Dame junior and president of BridgeND Christian McGrew said he believes Trump’s election has drawn more attention to sexual assault in the U.S. over the past year.
“There’s been, especially recently, a lot more awareness around the issue surrounding sexual assault,” he said. “People are taking it seriously now, which I think is a great thing, and it hasn’t been taken as seriously as in the past. I think that Trump being elected was a wake-up call and raised more awareness around this issue than if he hadn’t been.”
In response to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinding Title IX protections put in place by President Barack Obama, students have started a “Stand 4 IX” campaign that asks University President Fr. John Jenkins to pledge to uphold Obama-era Title IX standards. Notre Dame junior Sabrina Barthelmes said her biggest concern relates to the standard of evidence universities are now allowed to use in determining the outcome of Title IX cases.
“In my opinion, the worst change is that schools no longer have to use the preponderance of evidence standard — they can now choose between using that and clear and convincing,” Barthelmes said. “Which I think is detrimental to the progress we’ve been making in the fight for survivors’ rights. Notre Dame hasn’t made an official announcement about where they stand on any of this. … I’m concerned about what will happen when Notre Dame finally does decide to take a stance on it — because they’re going to have to.”
Notre Dame junior Jeffrey Murphy, treasurer of the College Republicans, said while he believes sexual assault and survivors should be taken “super seriously,” he wants the University to switch to clear and convincing.
“I hope everybody feels strongly about sexual assault and rape,” Murphy said. “ … I think the problem is, I don’t think sexual assault should be considered individually from the rest of the law. So I don’t think a more-likely-than-not scenario is good. It’s got to be beyond a reasonable doubt, because if someone is convicted of sexual assault, that’s a life-ruining conviction.”
Barthelmes said absolute certainty is almost impossible to reach in cases of sexual assault, however.
“I think some people think we can’t accuse innocent people of sexual assault, and I agree, we shouldn’t,” she said. “But I think, due to the nature of the crime, preponderance of evidence is the only standard that should be used. You’re never, ever — in 99 percent of cases, I would say, have clear and convincing evidence.”
Only 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault reports are false, Barthelmes said, and the Title IX process involves several steps before a decision is reached.
“Some people jump to the rights of the accused … [but] the process of Title IX and reporting and going through the entire [process] up until you get a decision is incredibly difficult,” she said. “ … It is not as easy as people coming from the side of the rights of the accused might think to get a guilty decision. And especially here at Notre Dame, we don’t do that very often.”
The issue of determining what can actually be considered sexual assault is also something Murphy said he believes should be clearer, and he said he does not believe the problem is as pervasive as others make it out to be.
“I do think sometimes this issue is exaggerated beyond the reality,” he said. “I think the majority of American men and women are good people. For example, I don’t think college campuses — I don’t think Notre Dame has a culture of sexual assault. I think most people here are … good people trying to do good things.”
Whether the issue is contraception, abortion or Title IX, however, Herrera said she does not believe any one thing should ever be labeled as a “women’s issue.”
“The worst thing you can ever say is ‘women’s issues’ because I think every issue is a women’s issue,” she said. “I don’t think our issues should be degraded down to our body parts, and that’s why it bothers me that some women are single-issue voters based on abortion. There are so many other issues that pertain to women, like tax, economics, immigration. Anything else can relate to them too.”