Taking Obama's Side on Catholic Campus Outcry Over Birth Control Mandate

Breaking with standard Times practice when liberal activists challenge conservative rule changes, reporter Denise Grady gave far more news space to supporters of the change wrought by Obama, beginning and ending with a Fordham University birth control activist.

As part of Obama-care 'reform,' the administration is requiring religious organizations include free birth control in their employee insurance plans. Monday's front-page story on the controversy by Denise Grady took the perspective of supporters of the rule change, which Catholics and others call an attack on religious freedom: 'Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges.'

The jump-page photo featured Fordham law student Bridgette Dunlap (pictured right), who organized an off-campus clinic to provide birth control for students, and the story both began and concluded from her perspective, in defense of the change.

Bridgette Dunlap, a Fordham University law student, knew that the school's health plan had to pay for birth control pills, in keeping with New York state law. What she did not find out until she was in an examining room, 'in the paper dress,' was that the student health service - in keeping with Roman Catholic tenets - would simply refuse to prescribe them.

As a result, students have had to go to Planned Parenthood or private doctors to get prescriptions. Some, unable to afford the doctor visits, gave up birth control pills entirely. In November, Ms. Dunlap, 31, who was raised a Catholic and was educated at parochial schools, organized a one-day, off-campus clinic staffed by volunteer doctors who wrote prescriptions for dozens of women.

Many Catholic colleges decline to prescribe or cover birth control, citing religious reasons. Now they are under pressure to change. This month the Obama administration, citing the medical case for birth control, made a politically charged decision that the new health care law requires insurance plans at Catholic institutions to cover birth control without co-payments for employees, and that may be extended to students. But Catholic organizations are resisting the rule, saying it would force them to violate their beliefs and finance behavior that betrays Catholic teachings.

'We can't just lie down and die and let religious freedom go,' said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The administration's rule has now run headlong into a dispute over values as Republican presidential contenders compete for the most conservative voters. In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.


At Catholic universities, some students support the right of the schools to uphold religious doctrine. But others, particularly professional and graduate students, have found the restrictions on birth control coverage onerous. Undergraduates are often covered by their parents' insurance, but graduate students are usually on their own and are more likely to be married or in relationships and in regular need of birth control.

At some schools, students say the rules are so stringent they have a hard time getting coverage even if they need birth control pills for strictly medical reasons.

Breaking with standard Times practice when liberal activists challenge conservative rule changes, Grady gave far more news space to supporters of the change wrought by Obama.

Grady devoted 15 sentences to three sources, two anonymous former students with medical issues plus law school professor Robin West, who 'question[s] the wisdom of the university's current policy.' She balanced that with three sentences from two Catholic officials, before concluding the article with 11 more sympathetic sentences documenting a failed attempt by Fordham's Dunlap to confront New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan at a lecture Q&A. Dunlap's question to Dolan, and what she had hoped to accomplish through it, remains a mystery.

At Fordham Law School on Tuesday night, Ms. Dunlap and five other law students who had worked against the university's birth control policy sat together at a lecture by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who had personally asked President Obama to exclude Catholic institutions from the contraception requirement and called the decision against the church 'unconscionable.'

During his lecture, Archbishop Dolan criticized people who postponed conception with 'chemicals and latex,' calling them part of the 'culture of death.'

Ms. Dunlap and her colleagues were feeling proud: they had just won a small victory, persuading Fordham to change its Web site to explain the birth control policy more clearly. Now, they wrote down questions on index cards, expecting them to be put to the archbishop after his speech. One concerned contraception.

The moderator read through the questions and deemed some of them too 'pointed.'

'If I don't ask your question,' he said, 'I either apologize or I don't care.'

Ms. Dunlap's queries did not make the cut. Her frustration nearly brought her to tears.
'I can't believe they didn't take our questions,' she said, adding that the moderator was trying to silence disagreement. 'It dishonors the law school.'

Grady's story is in line with the paper's Monday editorial, 'Birth Control and Reproductive Rights.'

It was good news that the Obama administration withstood pressure from Roman Catholic bishops and social conservatives to deny contraceptive coverage for millions of American women who work for religiously affiliated employers. Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, rejected broad exemptions from a new rule requiring all health plans to cover birth control, without a deductible or co-payment.