A College Senior Gets Real About Fighting For Birth Control On A Catholic Campus

Notre Dame dropped birth control coverage then reinstated it. Feminist activist Emily Garrett explains what happened.

The birth control mandate included in the Obama-era Affordable Care Act was a godsend for countless American women. Yet President Trump wasted little time rolling it back. Earlier this month, the Trump administration announced that employers could claim a religious exemption to refuse to provide birth control to their employees. The University of Notre Dame became one of the first institutions to take advantage of this rollback, notifying their students and faculty at the end of October that they would no longer provide them birth control coverage.

On Tuesday, though, Notre Dame reversed their decision, noting that they would, in fact, continue to offer birth control coverage.

This recent back-and-forth is only the tip of the iceberg of tumult at the heart of Notre Dame's campus culture regarding sexual health and reproductive rights. Emily Garrett, a feminist activist and fourth-year student at Notre Dame, told MTV News about these flurry of decisions and what students are doing to more broadly educate their campus about these issues.

My friends and I were at the Women’s Convention in Detroit when we received an email notifying us that our school, Notre Dame, was going to take advantage of Trump’s birth control rollback. It was jarring to be reminded of how regressive our campus can be amid some of the most progressive feminist activists in our country.

Emily Garrett

Emily Garrett (far left, pictured in green scarf) attends the 2017 Women's Convention in Detroit..

This announcement only added fuel to a fire that had been roaring on campus for weeks. The University has sought exemption from providing contraceptive care in the past, and when our University’s president initially commended Trump’s decision earlier in October, a bunch of progressive graduate students and some undergraduate students responded by holding a protest. We wanted to represent all the students on campus who opposed the University’s support.

And there were a lot of us: Even my more devoutly Catholic friends believed that protecting women’s access to contraception was more important than supporting the statement that the University was trying to make about religious freedom.

Two male students approached us with a common misconception: that asking for birth control coverage meant students wanted the University pay for their birth control.

So on October 10, we gathered in front of the Golden Dome, the main administrative building on campus, where we held posters advocating for reproductive healthcare access and shared stories about our experiences with accessing contraceptive care on campus. Halfway through the protest, though, two male students approached us. They held a common misconception also held by plenty of students on campus: that asking for birth control coverage meant students wanted the University pay for their birth control and, in doing so, force the University to support something that goes against their religious beliefs.

These students didn’t realize that Notre Dame has never paid for birth control — that contraception is completely covered by the third-party insurers. We just wanted the university to continue to allow the third-party insurers to provide the birth control coverage for which students, faculty, and staff have paid.

Luckily, Notre Dame ultimately made the right choice. On Tuesday afternoon, they announced that the insurance companies for students, faculty, and staff would continue to cover birth control at no additional cost to the University after all. While we still don’t know for sure what prompted Notre Dame to reconsider their stance — whether it was the combined pressure of multiple law suits, widespread press coverage, or their relationship with the insurance companies — we are relieved that they decided to uphold women’s access to healthcare.

The opposition around the process shows just how regressive and problematic our campus culture is when it comes to reproductive rights and sexual health.

But even though we dodged this bullet, the opposition and confusion that revolved around the process shows just how regressive and problematic our campus culture is when it comes to reproductive rights and sexual health. I first encountered this culture my freshman year. I was frustrated by everything from gender relations on campus to some students’ negative attitudes towards diversity to our lack of sexual health resources. My friends and I decided to do something about our frustration and created the campus organization Feminist ND.

While our group has done things to address some of these issues — like holding women’s self defense classes and sponsoring a group of students to attend the Women’s March Convention in Detroit — our hands are a little tied when it comes to other problems. As a recognized campus group, Feminist ND has to abide by Notre Dame’s policies that say we can’t advocate for or promote anything that goes against the Catholic mission or the university's interpretation of that mission. That includes advocating for birth control coverage.

I think a lot of students (like me) didn’t realize that coming here would limit our access to some of our basic rights.

Many people on campus have argued that students who oppose Notre Dame’s conservative decisions knew what we were getting into when we decided to go to a Catholic school. While it’s true that students and faculty made the choice to come here, I think a lot of students (like me) didn’t realize that coming here would limit our access to some of our basic rights. In fact, when I was applying to college and visited Notre Dame, they really emphasized their commitment to diversity and said students would not be forced to participate in Catholic traditions or activities, like mass. But taking away our contraception does force us to adhere to — and pay for — their religious beliefs.

Emily Garrett

Perhaps most frustrating of all, there is little space to push back on or try to start a dialogue about this issue on campus. We are not allowed to provide condoms on campus and there are no resources for reproductive health care or education. There’s very little dialogue between the very well-funded Pro Life group on campus and others about what we can all do to reduce abortion altogether. Notre Dame feels actions regarding and conversations about these things go against their Catholic faith and are even unnecessary, since it's against our student code of conduct to have premarital sex.

Even though Notre Dame will provide birth control coverage after all, therefore, we’re still trying to gather progressive undergrads and grad students together to create a collaborative entity to protect women’s rights. We cannot quietly let the administration try to drag us back into the past, but must harness our power to change Notre Dame and bring it into the 21st century. We must organize and fight regressive policies: We have the power to make them listen.