After half a decade fighting an Obama administration rule about contraception, the University of Notre Dame took advantage of a Trump administration move, at the end of October, to end contraceptive coverage in health plans for its staff and students.
A week later, to the consternation of others opposing the HHS mandate on religious freedom grounds, the venerable Catholic university reversed its decision, announcing that faculty, students, and staff will be able to obtain coverage for contraceptives through their university-sponsored insurance plans.
This has taken controversy surrounding Notre Dame’s response to the HHS Mandate in a completely new direction. As a recent alumna of the University of Notre Dame, I think the women in the university community deserved to see more moral and academic courage than was exhibited in this decision.
Catholic institutions like Notre Dame should be known not only for their commitment to excellence and truth in academia, but also for their commitment to the teachings of the faith they claim to profess. It is true that many people do not see the problem with a Catholic university providing contraception for those who desire it, but it’s up to the university itself to show that the Church’s teaching in this area is meant to promote the health and welfare of women, not to hold them back. And the science concerning contraception supports that empowerment.
In its official statement, the university wrote that it “will not interfere with the provision of contraceptives that will be administered and funded independently of the university.” Of course, the university should not force anyone to act against their own beliefs. And here it’s important to note that the university has covered and should continue to cover contraception prescribed for medical reasons. However, “not interfering” does not mean that the university is obliged to be a conduit for contraceptives. More to the point, it has a prime opportunity to communicate what we know about contraception and women’s freedom.
We know that when sex has been separated from the idea that it might lead to children, which happens when use of contraception becomes commonplace, women are more likely to face an unplanned pregnancy. Women and men are more likely to ignore the value of sex within marriage, as well as more likely to have sex outside of marriage.
Contraception is not always effective in preventing pregnancy, which puts women in a difficult position when pregnancies do occur. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 48 percent of women with unintended pregnancies and 54 percent of women seeking abortions were using contraception during the month they became pregnant. Without the support of marriage or a committed relationship, it becomes the responsibility of the woman to deal with the natural consequences that result.
In addition to the personal and social risks to women that result from separating the idea of sex from marriage and children, contraception also has associated medical risks to women that are often overlooked—everything from blood clots and hair loss to weight gain and more.
Research has linked hormonal contraception with an increased risk of depression especially among adolescent girls. Using hormonal contraceptives can put obese women (38.3 percent of female adults in the U.S.) at a greater risk for deep venous thrombosis. And these are just a few side effects associated with a few different forms of contraception. The 40 percent dissatisfaction rate among women regarding their current form of contraception reflects that women want and need something better.
The pill and similar methods also manipulate women's hormones in a way that changes their attraction to men, making them more likely to choose a partner that is not a good match in the long term.
All of these side effects and risks of contraception are related to areas of great concern for college-aged women—love, sex, physical health, and happiness. There are a great many resources Notre Dame could be using to make this information available to their students—FACTS, FEMM, and Natural Womanhood, to name a few—in order to better serve them in pursuing a fulfilling life. Part of the university’s mission is to foster the development of its students in body, mind, and spirit. Empowering women with a greater understanding of their bodies and allowing them to reflect more deeply on decisions that affect their overall well-being should be part of this mission.
Is it a hard topic to address? Absolutely. Is it bound to raise controversy and make people uncomfortable? You bet. But their willingness to do so would demonstrate that an academic institution as fine as Notre Dame is committed to excellence for their students in all areas of life.
A university should be a place where students are given a chance to reckon with new ideas and strive to discover the truth. If not at Notre Dame, then where will its students discover the truth about the Catholic faith, in all its many facets?
If Notre Dame says that it does not support contraception, yet does not give its students the facts about birth control, it is failing them. It is also missing an opportunity to foster greater understanding between people of differing beliefs, as well as an opportunity to reach students like me, who have to make decisions about birth control without all the facts.
In my own case, lack of knowledge about how contraception really was working in me caused me more harm than good. While I was a student at Notre Dame, I was prescribed the pill to treat painful, irregular periods. I didn’t receive much education on how this medication was “working” on my periods, what the cause of my issue was, or how to effectively treat it. Meanwhile, I tolerated a host of uncomfortable side effects.
Years later I discovered that the pill had been hurting me, not helping. It had actually been masking symptoms of widespread endometriosis. Only after I had stopped taking the synthetic hormones was I able to uncover the real problem and receive treatment via fertility-awareness-based methods and surgery. Today, I wonder why I wasn’t given more information regarding birth control before I consented to take it. I also wonder what role Notre Dame, a university dedicated to asking tough questions and pursuing truth, could have played in helping me to ask more questions about my “need” to be on birth control.
I wonder if people are afraid to talk about the problems with birth control because they fear that it will undermine women's empowerment. In reality, the absence of frank conversation results in a lack of informed judgment. True empowerment of women means giving them all the facts and allowing them to make an informed decision.
Notre Dame has the opportunity to encourage such empowerment of women. I sincerely hope that the university will have the courage to face these difficult conversations, make people rethink their assumptions about birth control, and enact a policy that will truly benefit all women within the Notre Dame community.
Erin Cain is a writer and editor living in New York City. She is dedicated to serving others as a mentor, catechist, and Coworker of Life and is a member of Women Speak for Themselves.