I attend Georgetown University, where I am intimately involved in H*yas for Choice (HFC), which is an unaffiliated reproductive justice organization that seeks to empower students to have the necessary information to make sexual health decisions for themselves. Because Georgetown is a Jesuit university, our presence on campus is often contested, and we frequently butt heads with the university administration over our pro-abortion advocacy and our persistence at being the sole source of condoms on campus. We have a bit of a reputation as a group of condom-wielding “abortionistas”, as one fringe student organization recently called us, and that’s a pity. Truly, our goal is to support students in whatever sexual choices they make, and to advocate for a university environment as conducive to as wide a range of choices as possible.
To that end, in an attempt to ensure our work encompasses more than condoms and abortion, for the past few months HFC has been conducting a survey asking students to share their stories of accessing essential sexual health services from the student health center and from Health Education Services (HES), an advisory university body that offers free health information to students.
Most Georgetown students have a vested interest in ensuring they or their partner has access to birth control, and every Georgetown student can benefit from easy and inexpensive access to STI testing. HES and the student health center attempt to persuade students that they do an adequate job providing for students’ sexual health, but how do the lived experiences of Georgetown students measure up with their purported services?
Georgetown cloaks its ambiguous policies on sexual health services in deliberately vague language. At a sexual health panel HFC hosted last year, Carol Day, the director of HES, confirmed that a “prescription is not guaranteed” for birth control for the purpose of contraception from the student health center, but that birth control would be prescribed for “other reasons”. In other words, birth control is theoretically available to you if you lie. Implicitly condoning the practice of giving inaccurate information to your doctor is wholly at odds with any semblance of a functioning health care system.
Even worse, when students do need their birth control prescription for reasons beside contraception, it can still be denied, despite Ms. Day’s assertion. One respondent related that, after going to the health center to get their prescription refilled, the doctor “said she could not continue prescribing me the pill since under my health records…I was on the pill for ‘contraceptive purposes’”, despite also taking it to “help with dysmenorrhea and acne”.
Student health insurance adds another layer of convoluted language. The health insurance benefits brochure notes that “birth control…regardless of intended use” will unequivocally not be covered, then concedes that “this policy is now required to provide coverage for contraceptives” and that the coverage “will not be paid for by Georgetown University” but rather by the “insurance company underwriting this plan.”
Indeed, this policy is exactly the sort debated last week at the Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell. When institutions with firmly held religious beliefs seek exemption from covering contraception, the insurance company itself is supposed to pick up the slack and cover the services under the Affordable Care Act, but this is by no means a perfect system.
It’s confusing, and it’s intended to be confusing, because this smoke-and-mirrors charade allows Georgetown to skirt around the true intent of its policies, which is to blindly follow the maxims of the Catholic church without regard for the impact it has on actual students trying to obtain medical care.
One might expect the situation to be clearer and more student-friendly for STI testing. After all, what controversy could there be? STI testing doesn’t violate any Catholic doctrine. And yet: “Although the attendants at the health center had guaranteed several times that the charge would be only the $10 co-pay”, one respondent narrated after a visit for STI testing, “I received a charge of $197 for the lab work that was done…They didn’t let me know the lab work would be an extra charge before they went ahead with it.” The student continued, “There is no cost-effective way to make sure you don’t have STDs, and the student health center is not a solution.”
It’s clear: when the student health center and student insurance policies cloud their services and coverage in deliberately obscure language, students suffer. They are dissuaded from seeking treatment or are shamed when they do visit. One student commented that “the whole process felt very hostile” and another said that, despite being a “responsible, sexually active young woman”, if she “had ever felt embarrassed about her sexuality…it was then” because of the look she had been given when she said she her sexual partner was not her boyfriend.
Georgetown can do better, even within its role as a Jesuit institution. It could offer periodic free STI and HIV testing, as other universities do; it could require its health providers to share alternate locations in DC for students to acquire services when the health workers themselves refuse to; it could provide sensitivity training to its health center employees to create a sex-positive and gender-inclusive environment. Georgetown has options and it chooses not to utilize them, and I find that intolerable behavior on the part of my university.
Unfortunately, Georgetown’s policies are more or less in line with other Jesuit universities in the country. Gonzaga University, in Spokane, WA, explicitly states that it will not cover “contraceptives used for the purpose of birth control”, and Villanova and Boston College follow suit. Jesuit universities’ blatant disregard for the health of their students is shameful. These institutions are places where, first and foremost, students live, grow, and learn. Having access to health care is a foundational part of that experience, and students shouldn’t have to choose between going to their choice of colleges and having regular access to birth control or other sexual health services.