— SAGES Coalition (@fordhamSAGES) October 3, 2014
When condoms materialize at Fordham University events, it’s easy to jump to one conclusion: culture war. The “Condom Drops” have been part of a series of incognito protests at the Catholic university by a student group called SAGES (Students for Sex Equality Gender and Safety), against a religious administration they consider “sex negative.”
Along with the latex deliveries (which flout Fordham’s rules against giving out contraception on campus), SAGES has anonymously live-tweeted meetings about sexual health on campus and set up a petition demanding co-ed dorms, free access to birth control, and a free-speech zone where student groups can share materials not preapproved by the administration.
The school responded, tweeting that it doesn’t prohibit birth control — just its distribution on campus. “Secret protests are fun, but at college, we debate ideas rather than litter about them,” retorted the school’s Rose Hill Student Life office, which invited SAGES to come forward for a discussion. “Instead of anonymity…try some Fordham values this Homecoming: open debate and respect for beliefs and traditions of others.”
SAGES has yet to RSVP.
But in the midst of the “fun” back-and-forth lurks a more startling allegation. Two women have come forward saying that the school’s medical center has violated its own policies regarding providing hormonal birth control for physical health reasons.
New York State requires the university’s health insurance to pay for birth-control pills. But because contraception goes against church doctrine, health providers at Fordham’s University Health Services will not prescribe them — meaning a student who’s on the Pill must obtain her prescription elsewhere. (For that matter, Health Services won’t prescribe any form of contraception or make referrals for abortions.)
But according to the school’s website, there’s a loophole: “University Health Services staff do make limited exceptions in writing appropriate prescriptions for the treatment of an existing medical condition accompanied by supporting documentation.”
Trouble is, current and former students say, those exceptions can be hard to come by.
Jadis Armbruster, who graduated in 2013, says the school declined to prescribe the Pill to continue her treatments for PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), a common disorder that, if untreated, can result in infertility and other medical conditions.
For Armbuster, who’d moved to New York from Missouri to attend Fordham, it was easier to cross her fingers and hope her illness didn’t get worse than to find a doctor in a New York.
“I could barely navigate the subway, let alone the city,” she writes via email to the Voice. She says Fordham nurses said they weren’t allowed to refer her to a doctor for the purposes of getting contraception, and seeing a doctor on her visits home felt too complicated: “It wasn’t impacting my quality of life in any substantial way, so it was easier to let it drop than take on NYC healthcare as a teenager alone.”
Rachel Field, 21, an organizer with the mostly anonymous SAGES, says that before attending Fordham she used birth control to prevent the growth of ovarian cysts. “I had been on Depo-Provera since I was 15,” the Fordham senior tells the Voice.
When Field moved from Massachusetts, she originally scheduled her injections — once every three months — to match up roughly with her visits home. When that became untenable, she went to the university health center, where a nurse refused to administer the injection. “I went off [the medication] for a month,” she says. Field eventually found a doctor in New York, but, she says, “After being so inconsistent, it made me feel so sick. It put a lot of strain on my body.”
She eventually stopped taking the shots, she says, only to find herself in the hospital with a ruptured cyst and a hernia.
Field recently went back to the health center to see if the university would prescribe birth control for her now, given her medical history. She’s waiting to feel better, she says, before going back on birth control, but she wanted to see how they’d respond. “When I was a freshman, I was scared,” she says. “[This time] I went in there and said, ‘Hey, can you prescribe this? I have the paperwork.'”
She was denied again.
Fordham’s senior director of communications Bob Howe can’t respond to any individual allegations, because of federal privacy laws around health records. But he did answer the Voice‘s request for comment with a statement reaffirming the Jesuit stance on birth control, adding:
“Regarding the allegation that students were denied hormone treatment for non-contraceptive reasons, we can say categorically that it isn’t University policy to do so. The Student Health Center does do diagnostics and hormone treatment (i.e.: birth control pills) for medical conditions as a matter of routine. Students can either be examined and have diagnostic work at the SHC, OR provide documentation from a physician if they prefer not to have the SHC conduct the exam and diagnostics.”
We’ve asked Howe if he can tell us how many women have requested birth control for health reasons, and how many of those requests are approved. If he’s able to respond, we’ll update the story accordingly.
Meghan Smith, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit reproductive-rights group Catholics for Choice, says that “medical condition” policies like Fordham’s don’t work. “Unfortunately, whenever these limited kinds of exceptions are allowed it can lead to confusion,” she says.
Smith points to Georgetown University, where law student and activist Sandra Fluke highlighted the challenges faced by students with endometriosis or PCOS. Addressing a Democratic congressional panel, Fluke said students were being refused coverage for hormonal birth control by the Catholic school’s insurance provider, or being interrogated about whether they were lying about their symptoms so that they could prevent pregnancy.
‘”Carve-outs can be well-intentioned,” Smith says, “but when it comes to the reality of people’s lives, they need to make decisions regardless of their circumstances or situation.”
Correction published 10/9/14: As originally published, this post indicated that Fordham’s Condom Fairy, an anonymous safe-sex advocate and rubber dropper-offer, is part of Fordham SAGES. While the Condom Fairy is a SAGES supporter, the Fairy is unaffiliated with the group. The above version reflects the corrected text.