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We must band together for clarity and coverage

| Tuesday, February 20, 2018

When the federal government changed its regulatory guidance on the Affordable Care Act last fall, Notre Dame announced its intention to ensure that thousands of its students and employees would no longer be able to afford birth control. However, when the ensuing outrage of those living and working on campus, including a petition with over 500 signatures, thrust Notre Dame into the national spotlight, the administration abruptly reversed its decision. Now, with an email sent to the campus community last week, it is clear that Notre Dame is trying once again to limit our health and reproductive choices. Although the email strikes a conciliatory tone, stating that University insurance will allow some forms of contraception and paying lip service to the diversity of beliefs on campus, we members of the Notre Dame community are not satisfied. We reject the divisions that Notre Dame’s strategy attempts to create, and we reject the fallacious distinction between “simple contraception” and other forms. Consequently, we insist that the administration immediately clarify its position and commit to full coverage of all FDA-approved methods of contraception.

When framing the contraception issue, those who run the University consistently invoke their sincerely-held Catholic faith and its attached beliefs as the reason for their actions. The root problem, however, is not belief, but power: The only reason the diversity of beliefs on this issue causes campus tension is that Notre Dame is trying to use its immense power over students and employees to implement the beliefs of those in charge. We affirm that Catholics everywhere should be free to practice their faith and form like-minded communities, but we reject the administration’s interpretation that this practice legitimately includes using accumulated economic power to enforce compliance. That is, if University President Fr. John Jenkins, University donors or members of the campus community want us to join them in practicing a particular vision of Catholic faith, they should avoid leveraging the administrative bureaucracy and instead approach us as equals.

When Fr. Jenkins emailed us last week, he was not engaging us in dialogue as equals. In a classroom discussion, for example, when we object to a peer’s argument we can raise counterpoints and discuss the issue, and perhaps some of us will even change our minds. Instead, this announcement — made after a secret process that leaves us guessing as to who even participated in the conversation — proposes we choose between two unpalatable options: either live with the consequences of restricted healthcare or leave the University. By attempting to limit us to these options when our wellbeing might require others, the announcement is coercive: Depending on circumstances, leaving the University potentially risks a period of reduced pay or unemployment, along with the ensuing hardship of poverty. Graduate students in particular also risk setbacks in coursework or research, the stress and expense of moving elsewhere, or even losing the ability to stay in the U.S. Though the email purports to encourage “reflection on the important moral questions at stake,” in reality such coercive methods ask only for unquestioning obedience.

It is not a coincidence that this tension bubbles over specifically on the issues of birth control and reproductive freedom: Fr. Jenkins and the donors he answers to are exercising their power in continuity with an extensive system of gendered social control. This system aims to divide society into two kinds of people — men and women — and to require those it deems women to perform sexual, emotional and child-rearing labor for male consumption in exchange for safety and survival. The University’s actions on contraception fit that paradigm in both aim and method. The email announcement tells us what Fr. Jenkins wants when it casts the Catholic stance on contraception as challenging the “decline of committed and faithful marriages and family life,” referencing a traditional model of sexual, emotional and child-rearing labor. And as we see with this announcement, the University chooses to challenge that decline by coercively discouraging people who can become pregnant — people it presumes are women — from practicing other models.

Returning to the immediate issue of the birth control announcement, Fr. Jenkins’s email shows strategic deftness. Last semester, during the moment of shock when we all learned our birth control was at risk, students, faculty and staff banded together in protest, multiple lawsuits commenced and the public eye was fixed on Notre Dame. Fr. Jenkins’ power to dictate waned, and he reversed his decision. Every factor of the recent announcement conspires to prevent a repeat of that experience by dividing and diluting any potential opposition: Conceding “simple contraception” (whatever that means) aims to split those who use hormonal pills from those who use other forms, explicitly recognizing the diversity of belief on campus aims to split idealists who would give the benefit of the doubt from radicals who would not, and promising a trickle of details over the coming months aims to preempt a singular moment of outrage. We see you, and we refuse your divisions. We demand immediate clarity on what contraception will be covered, and the only acceptable answer is comprehensive coverage of all FDA-approved methods.

As an employer and as an institution, Notre Dame does have a lot of power, yes. But this power is not absolute. The events of last semester show a possibility outside the “take it or leave it” ultimatum offered by the University: When we show solidarity and act collectively, the University responds. Restricting healthcare is just one of the ways the University harms its employees and students. A lot is happening on campus right now, from a lack of affordable graduate student housing to massive changes in graduate student funding and degree programs, from a lack of serious commitment to the undocumented members of our community to a half-hearted response to sexual harassment, assault and rape. If we are to take on these challenges, we must band together. To borrow a phrase from our recent visitor Dolores Huerta, “Sí, se puede.”


Mike Haskel

with editorial assistance from the Graduate Workers Collective of Notre Dame

graduate student

Feb. 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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