At midnight on Feb. 7, University President Fr. John Jenkins distributed an email to the Notre Dame community at large, describing the latest installment in Notre Dame’s enduring efforts to regulate birth control and the reproductive rights of its faculty, staff and students. In the fall of 2017, the University declared that coverage of birth control would be discontinued. After considerable backlash, Jenkins reversed this decision. Now, Jenkins’ Feb. 7 email has changed the policy again: Notre Dame will provide coverage for “simple contraceptives” through its own insurance plan rather than through third-party insurers, but will uphold Catholic values by not providing “abortifacients.” The email failed to specify precisely which medications were included in each category.
In his message, Jenkins describes simple contraceptives as “drugs designed to prevent conception” and abortifacients as drugs that cause the “destruction of innocent human life.” At best, these definitions contain very little descriptive information about how these contraceptives operate; at worst, they actively mislead the reader about basic human reproduction. It seems that a crash course in procreation and contraception may be in order.
Let us be as clear as possible: There is no such thing as an abortifacient contraceptive. The medical definition of pregnancy necessitates that a fertilized egg be implanted in the woman’s uterus; a merely fertilized egg does not constitute a pregnancy because more than two thirds of all fertilized eggs naturally fail to implant. There is only one medication that can affect an implanted egg and induce an abortion: mifepristone, the abortion pill. All other FDA-approved contraceptives, including Plan B and IUDs, work only to prevent pregnancy by hindering sperm from reaching the egg, stopping the release of the egg from the ovary or thinning the uterine lining to make implantation more difficult.
Despite the confusion, lack of clarity and possible misinformation surrounding contraceptives and abortifacients implicit in this new policy change, it is important to recognize the huge step Jenkins and the University have taken in upholding the individual conscience of each member of the Notre Dame family when it comes to making healthcare decisions. Jenkins’ recognition that “most of those covered [under Notre Dame insurance] have no financially feasible alternative but to rely on the University for such coverage” and that denying access to contraceptives would “burden those who have made the conscientious decisions about the use of such drugs” directly acknowledges the fears we expressed many months ago when the administration first tried to restrict contraception access. We applaud Jenkins’ understanding of each person’s individual moral choice in this matter and are glad that his discernment has led him to a decision that will benefit the health and wellbeing of many members of the Notre Dame family.
However, focusing exclusively on insurance coverage for contraceptives does not do enough. Notre Dame’s coverage of prescription, hormonal contraception does nothing to reduce the cost of, or increase the access to, condoms on campus. If Notre Dame is willing to accept the importance of the coverage of “simple contraceptives,” and is also willing to pay for the members of its community to make the individual moral choice to use hormonal contraceptives, then it follows that Notre Dame should be willing to provide access to barrier-based contraceptives (i.e. condoms and dental dams) as well.
In this new policy, Jenkins acknowledges the conscientious choice of using prescription contraception; funding access to condoms on campus would allow men on campus, as well as women who do not use prescription contraception, to make the same choice for their sexual and reproductive health. Condoms are clearly not considered to be abortifacients in any definition of the term and are the cheapest and simplest form of “artificial” contraception out there. Along with other barrier methods, condoms are the only form of contraception that can prevent the transmission of STIs, in addition to preventing conception. If Notre Dame will fund women’s individual choice for contraception through prescription insurance coverage, why not ensure that every member of the on-campus community has access to this same choice by providing free condoms, or at least allowing condoms to be available for purchase on campus?
We call upon Jenkins and the Notre Dame administration to make condoms accessible and available to the University community. Having access to barrier contraceptives will not only empower individuals at Notre Dame to make conscientious choices, but will also promote gender equality by allowing everyone to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive health.
If you agree that condoms should be easily accessible to the Notre Dame community, please consider showing your support by signing this open letter. This letter will be sent to the administration to protest their failure to adequately address our whole community’s sexual and reproductive health needs.