Catholic Universities Like Georgetown Should Provide Students Free Access to Birth Control


Contraception is widely used by most women, including 98% of Catholic women. But when the Obama administration announced in late January that all health insurance plans must provide contraception free of charge, some commentators charged that the Obama administration was throwing Catholics under the bus. This rule applies to health insurance that religiously-affiliated colleges and universities provide to students. While many people share the goal of preventing unintended pregnancies, there is strong support on the part of religiously-affiliated institutions for an exemption from the new requirement.

Last month, the Obama administration announced that it will require religious institutions to abide by the rule, and it would give them one year to implement it. The Obama administration made the right decision in requiring health plans to provide contraception to women free of charge.

Most, if not all, colleges and universities offer health insurance to their students. But many Catholic colleges and universities do not provide contraception to students through their health insurance plans. Some women have stopped using contraception because they were not able to afford the co-pays. This is dangerous for women’s health, and the Obama administration should be applauded for helping to meet the health care needs of college women.

Just to be clear, this new rule has nothing to do with abortion. In fact, the new rule will likely decrease abortions by preventing unintended pregnancies in the first place. While some religious groups praised the change, the new rules have riled some religious institutions. One conservative Christian institution has already filed a case against the Obama administration seeking an injunction against the new regulations. Such an injunction would be bad for students, and a sad demonstration of some institutions’ willingness to put ideology ahead of the health and safety of their students. 

While some universities may think that providing access to contraception condones the sexual behavior of its students, not providing women with access to contraception is merely pretending that that college students are not having sex. This is not only demonstrably false, it calls into question the reality in which administrators live. Nearly 80% of college students are sexually active. Colleges and universities cannot expect that their failure to provide their students with contraception will mean that their students simply will not have sex. To turn a blind eye to the students’ lives, and to put a barrier between the students and their ability to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies is destructive.

Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution that has always been more moderate than many Catholic institutions in the United States, has announced that it will comply with the new rule. Fordham University, on the other hand, has told women that it refuses to cover contraception because the use of contraception is out of line with the school’s religious beliefs. It has even balked at providing contraception for students who require it for medical reasons that have nothing to do with sexual intercourse.

In the year that the Pill turned 50, and nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court invalidated a law that prohibited the use of contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut, it is high time women have more complete access to health care that will provide them with the liberty to make choices. Some commentators have argued that the administration should have allowed a religious exemption, that Obama is now in trouble politically with Catholics. This decision may not be good politics in the eyes of some commentators. But it is good policy. Women’s health decisions should be made on the basis of medical merit, not politics.

The Affordable Care Act now makes contraception affordable. This decision is not only good for women’s health, but it encourages college students to make responsible decisions and will help to prevent unintended pregnancies. The Obama administration should be applauded for taking a courageous step in the right direction for women’s health.

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