Student activists at Fordham University, a Catholic school in New York City, are fighting back against what they say is an “unfair and unjust” campus policy that denies them essential reproductive health services. A coalition calling itself SAGES — which stands for “Students for Sex and Gender Equity and Safety” — is circulating a petition demanding access to contraception.
“We demand that the Fordham administration and Board of Trustees take action. Fordham’s outdated policies facilitate a sex-negative campus culture,” the petition, which has garnered about 200 signatures so far, reads. Students are asking the administration to provide free condoms in community spaces, free birth control and STD consultations in the health center, more resources for pregnant students, and more housing options for students who identify as transgender.
The SAGES coalition has been actively challenging Fordham’s birth control policy for the past several weeks, posting flyers around campus and handing out condoms at school events. At football games and homecoming activities this fall, they passed out condoms attached to a message reading, “Students deserve safety.” The student activists with SAGES have also partnered with the “Condom Fairy,” an anonymous sexual health proponent who distributes condoms around Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.
“Student health and safety is non-negotiable,” one of the organizers with SAGES, senior Rachel Field, told USA Today earlier this month. “The desire to go to an institution of learning should not mean that you have to sacrifice your health to do so. The UN has stated that birth control is a human right… why are we being denied human rights at Fordham?”
Like many Catholic schools, Fordham technically has a policy that states students may obtain birth control pills on campus “for the treatment of an existing medical condition accompanied by supporting documentation.” But Field and her fellow organizers say that medical exemption doesn’t actually work in practice.
In an interview with the Village Voice, Field explained that she used the Depo-Provera birth control shot to prevent ovarian cysts for several years before she started college. But a nurse at Fordham’s health center refused to administer those injections, and it took Field some time to find another doctor in New York. Using the hormonal method inconsistently gave her negative side effects, and she eventually went off the medication — and ended up in the hospital with a ruptured cyst. Even with paperwork documenting her hospital stay, the employees at Fordham’s student health center still refused to give Depo-Provera to Field.
Field’s story isn’t unusual. An estimated 1.5 million women use birth control for medical reasons, like regulating painful periods, addressing acne, or preventing ovarian cysts. And teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 — the people who are heading to college for the first time — are the demographic group that’s most likely to rely on contraception for those health issues.
In Sandra Fluke’s infamous testimony in favor of Obamacare’s birth control coverage policy — which has since launched her into a political career — she pointed out that students at Catholic colleges are particularly vulnerable when their student health plans won’t cover birth control, since the loopholes for medical conditions don’t usually work in practice. Fluke told a story about a friend who, like Field, suffered from ovarian cysts yet couldn’t get a birth control prescription from Georgetown University.
The religiously-fueled controversy over sexual health services has inspired similar pushback at other Catholic schools. Last year, activists at Boston College, which is a Jesuit institution, faced potential disciplinary action for passing out condoms on campus. Georgetown students recently launched a condom delivery service on their campus. The ACLU has warned Catholic administrations that they don’t necessarily have a right to crack down on students for that activity.
Catholic colleges weren’t always opposed to birth control; in fact, in the 1960s, faculty at these institutions often pushed for better access to family planning resources. Fordham University was one of those schools. In 1967, after Fordham students petitioned for a class on birth control, the dean of students agreed to implement a sexual education seminar including “frank discussions of methods of conception and contraception.” That activism challenged what exactly it means to be a Catholic institution, particularly as Catholic individuals’ support for birth control continues to rise.
Today’s Fordham students want to continue that work. “Please support our struggle for a safer and healthier Fordham University. We believe that this struggle not only has implications for thousands of Fordham Students across New York, but also for millions of students and communities across the nation,” the SAGES petition concludes.