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Response to “Notre Dame doesn’t owe you birth control”

| Thursday, November 16, 2017

First, I would like to offer my support and appreciation to the University for reversing its oppressive decision to exclude birth control from employee health care plans. However, it is also necessary to address the rhetoric on campus that has encompassed the issue. Specifically, the letter to the editor entitled “Notre Dame doesn’t owe you birth control.”

The problem with the author’s claim that corporations can claim freedom of religion, as with the decision in the controversial Supreme Court case “Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.,” is that it allows the corporation’s religious views to restrict the religious liberty of the individual employee. Institutions don’t have guaranteed religious freedom, individuals do. Notre Dame’s choice to discontinue birth control in its employee health care plan (which, importantly, is paid for by employees of the University and supplied by a third-party provider) restricts individual religious liberty for the benefit of its own views as an institution, not an individual.

To compare requesting free alcohol from Brigham Young University to asking Notre Dame to cover basic employee health care is an analogy that does not prove the point. Health care is an individual right, alcohol is not. The better analogy for the author’s argument is that individual rights limit how far an institution can go in imposing its religious views; presumably the author would not argue that a university’s religious views could be the basis to deny admission based upon certain classifications. In that instance, individual rights do trump the institution’s religious views. If the author agrees, then the real issue is not free alcohol at BYU but rather the individual liberties of the University’s employees and whether the University can restrict those freedoms based on its institutional views.

As the debate tries to reconcile issues of Catholic identity with the law, it is important to acknowledge common Catholic perception of the issue. In a 2016 survey of likely Catholic voters, conducted by Belden Russonello Strategists, 79 percent agree that health insurance companies should be required to offer health care plans that include birth control. Additionally, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception at some point in their lives. Therefore, while the University’s initial decision affected women of other religious practices, it would also have substantially affected a large number of women who identify as Catholic, but may practice their personal decisions in adherence with their individual conscience, which is acceptable due to their freedom to practice religion.

Furthermore, the policy is inherently sexist, whether intentional or not, as it restricts basic health care for women, but does not do the same for men. This furthers the message that women’s private lives are not up to them and are open to public debate. Hormonal birth control is, for many women, a vital component of their individual health care routine that should not require justification in order for a prescription to be written. Yet, the University chose to restrict women’s birth control and not Viagra for men. Is Viagra not as important to sexual freedom for men as hormonal birth control is for women who choose to use it for the primary purpose of contraception? In addition, while condoms are characterized by the author as “male birth control,” they clearly are not within the same realm of health care as hormonal birth control, which requires a medical prescription and is substantially more expensive.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge in this debate that the policy is inherently elitist. Not elitist because, as the author argues, a sense of entitlement demands that “ …an institution defy its religious beliefs to support your sex life”, but rather because it fails to acknowledge that this debate is most important to those who would not be able to afford this type of health care except through the subsidized program. Ultimately the author’s argument is that if the University’s insurance plan does not cover birth control, the woman can pay for it herself. But it is those who cannot pay that are most affected by this policy.

While I recognize, and personally strongly embrace, Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, I do not believe institutional religious freedom should not come at the expense of individual liberty or women’s health. We must respect the diversity of religious and personal convictions present on our campus. Therefore, I applaud the University for continuing to provide birth control, through a third party, for its employees — employees who are the backbone and spirit of this wonderful institution, and who, without them, Notre Dame community members would not be able to engage in such an important debate.

Jackie O’Brien


Nov. 15


The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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