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Notre Dame Students Sue Over Birth Control Coverage Changes

Jennifer Weingart


  The University of Notre Dame has been sued over its plans to drop copay free birth control options starting July first. The student group is also suing the Trump Administration.


Notre Dame’s birth control coverage has changed several times since the Affordable Care Act mandated it.

In 2015 the University challenged the mandate. It wanted to be exempt from providing birth control for its students and employees.

Paul Browne is Notre Dame’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications. He said the original lawsuit challenging the ACA was about religious freedom and the government deciding which institutions had to follow the law and which were exempt.

“We thought that was definitely a slippery slope allowing the federal government to decide who was Catholic enough and who wasn’t.”

Eventually a compromise was reached where Notre Dame’s health coverage companies Maritian Health and OptumRx would provide the birth control coverage at no extra charge as part of a supplemental insurance plan.

Then, in October 2017 President Donald Trump expanded religious and moral exemptions to the federal insurance mandate and Notre Dame announced it would drop those plans.

A few days later the University walked that back saying the third-party coverage would still be available and that the school had wrongly assumed the companies would no longer offer the coverage.

In February, Notre Dame’s president, the Reverend John Jenkins issued a statement saying the university would drop the third-party coverage but would provide coverage through the regular university plan for what he called ‘simple birth control’ and natural family planning.

In an FAQ the university says a co-pay will cover some forms of birth control, including some oral contraceptives, but other forms of birth control including the copper IUD will not be covered.

Here’s where the University makes its distinction: it’ll cover contraceptives that prevent conception or ovulation, but not those that prevent implantation or  interfere with the development of a pregnancy.

School spokesperson Paul Browne said the decision follows Catholic teaching about human life. “Protection of innocent life is a highly compassionate concern of a Catholic institution like the University and human embryos are human life.”

Still, a group of students and faculty called Irish 4 Reproductive Health said it’s confused  by the distinctions. A petition filed in early May with Jenkins’ office asks for clarification on what will and won’t be covered and at what cost.

The group said it hasn’t gotten the asked for clarification and has sued the University and the Trump Administration.

Natasha Reifenberg is a plaintiff on the suit and a member of Irish 4 Reproductive Health. She is a recent Notre Dame graduate, but is still on the school’s health plan. Her parents work for the University.

“People should have access to basic reproductive healthcare regardless of where they go to school, where they work and I felt very motivated by the values of Notre Dame to actually pursue being a plaintiff in this lawsuit.”

Reifenberg said Catholic teachings of compassion include leaders not disproportionately disadvantaging those they serve. “This idea that we can engage in, kind of, inclusive dialogue and that those solutions are going to be much more just and compassionate than decisions that are made top down.”

Michelle Banker is senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center and one of the lawyers on the suit. She alleged the administration and the University made a private pact to allow Notre Dame to deny coverage to its employees and students.

“What this lawsuit does is it challenges a settlement agreement that the university is claiming gives it the right to do this even though  the Trump Administration rules that were issued in October are currently blocked by two federal courts and they have been since December” (:15)

Browne said the University disagrees with the characterization of a backroom deal with the Trump Administration.

“Certainly some of the hyper-political statements saying that Notre Dame conspired in a backroom deal with the White House is just patently false and I think deliberately so.”

The lawsuit against Notre Dame and the Trump Administration was filed in U.S. District Court on June 26th.


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