Changes in medical coverage incite public demonstrations
THE SANTA CLARA
October 17, 2013
Several members of the Santa Clara community organized multiple public protests this week in response to the university’s decision to exclude elective abortion coverage in its employees’ health insurance plans.
Groups of female and male faculty members gathered inside the Leavey School of Business on Tuesday and outside of the Williman Room in the Benson Memorial Center on Wednesday holding picket signs that expressed opposition to the decision, which was first announced by President Michael Engh, S.J., in a letter sent out to university employees on Oct. 3.
The letter stated that Santa Clara’s “core commitments as a Catholic university are incompatible with the inclusion of elective abortion coverage in the University’s health plans.” Elective abortions are those deemed necessary by the mother whereas therapeutic abortions are recommended by a medical doctor when the mother’s health is at stake.
The letter also invited “members of the university to a conversation about these matters, in mutual regard and openness.” The Leavey Center lobby and the Williman Room were two planned forums for this conversation.
Michelle Burnham, an English professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and a participant in Tuesday’s protest, expressed concern over the nature of the first scheduled gathering.
“This seems to some of us to be an attempt to contain dissent rather than actually to promote dialogue,” said Burnham. “We were all completely blindsided by this piece of news.”
Burnham wasn’t the only one surprised by the decision, which will take effect in January 2014.
“The policy comes as quite a shock,” Nancy Unger, a history professor who happens to be Catholic, told NBC Bay Area.
While dozens of faculty members packed the Williman Room forum on Wednesday, others surrounded the doorway holding picket signs. Unger and Bill Sundstrom, an economics professor, chose to express their dissent by picketing just outside the room.
“This is the conversation that’s supposed to be taking place in these fora about balancing the Catholic character of the institution so-called, and the pluralism of the modern university,” said Sundstrom. “It’s something that should have taken place prior to the decision.”
According to a statement released by the university this week, Engh “is charged with carrying out the University’s mission and upholding its identity as a Jesuit, Catholic university. Central to its Catholic identity is the conviction that the sanctity of human life is a core value that grounds our commitment to social justice.”
The statement went on to explain that Engh reached his decision after “consulting with many members of the University’s faculty and staff, reviewing writings on the subject and considering the arguments of those who support the inclusion of elective abortions in the University’s healthcare plans.”
Last week, Engh also described his decision-making process at the Faculty Senate meeting, according to Burnham. This has not prevented disapproval from emerging on the Mission Campus in recent days. The protests on Tuesday and Wednesday were just some examples of the discontent.
An online petition introduced by the university’s Women Faculty Group called for an opportunity to appeal Engh’s decision. The petition, which had over 520 signatures as of Wednesday, objects to the “unilateral decision as inconsistent with our established collaborative governance process.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” all health insurance plans mandate that employers must cover contraception and sterilization but makes no ruling on abortion. In California, employers are required to cover therapeutic abortions, but state law does not require elective abortion coverage. Santa Clara will continue to cover therapeutic abortions and contraception, according to Engh’s letter.
The Santa Clara Community Action Program offered an open dialogue for students to discuss the issue on Tuesday night. Students were encouraged to share their thoughts by either attending the meeting or virtually participating via webcam.
On Wednesday night, the Labor Action Committee — one of SCCAP’s programs — held another meeting in which faculty was also invited.
“In this situation we want to be part of the dialogue and want to stand in solidarity with the faculty and staff in any way that we can,” said senior Claudia Fernandez, program director of the Labor Action Committee.
The organization has immediate plans to continue to invite faculty and staff to its weekly meetings, held Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. in the SCCAP office on the second floor of the Locatelli Student Activity Center.
Contact Nick Ostiller at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4849. Mallory Miller contributed to this report.