Did The Atlantic solve the Notre Dame contraception puzzle? Not really


Notre Dame University is seen by some as a beacon of progressive Catholic thought and by others as second only to Georgetown University as being Catholic in name only. This week the university's leaders did something that confounded simply everyone: Decide to provide contraceptive coverage in their health plan despite only a week before stating they would not do so.

In early November, Notre Dame announced it’d take advance of the Trump administration’s recent rollback of contraceptive coverage. Previously, the Affordable Care Act had required employers to pick up the tab. The Trump administration weakened that provision by allowing nearly any employer claiming it had religious or moral objections to birth control to refuse to provide it.

On Nov. 7, the university announced it would dump that same religious exemption –- with no explanation. An Atlantic article on “Why Notre Dame Changed Course on Contraception” doesn’t make things clearer.

Notre Dame announced on Tuesday that faculty, students, and staff will be able to obtain coverage for contraceptives through their university-sponsored insurance plans. The surprise decision is a reversal of the school’s announcement last week that it would discontinue birth-control coverage in light of new religious-freedom protections put in place by the Trump administration. ...
 Although the administration claims it reversed course out of respect for the diversity of its community, it’s not clear why it wouldn’t have taken faculty and student objections into account years ago. Meanwhile, religious-freedom advocates see the university’s move as a setback for their cause, because it potentially casts doubt on the sincerity and depth of moral objections to birth control.

As I scanned other news pieces on Notre Dame’s sudden course change, it’s clear other journalists hadn’t gotten to the bottom of the story either.

Still, I’m puzzled as to why the Atlantic claims to have found the reason. Reporter Emma Green, a 2012 graduate of Georgetown University and someone with connections in Catholic academia, said on Twitter she’d “done a little digging” into the whys of it.

She did provide a variety of viewpoints from a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation to a professor at the evangelically minded Wheaton College near Chicago, plus some Notre Dame campus sources. It’s with the latter that I have the most problems:

Notre Dame claims it made its decision out of respect for the pluralism of its community, but it’s not clear how seriously administration officials engaged with concerns about the university’s birth-control policy. In general, there’s not much of a protest culture on campus, said Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a professor of philosophy and biological sciences, because “most students are afraid of sabotaging their recommendations or careers.” Those who do protest -- especially on controversial issues like this -- might be subject to disciplinary action, raising free-speech concerns, said Gretchen Reydams-Schils, a professor in the program of liberal studies.
The faculty has also been divided -- and, in some cases, vocally opposed to Notre Dame’s actions. “None of the stories [have] captured just how much protest, complaint, and outrage was generated by faculty, students, and alums over that decision,” wrote Sarah McKibben, an associate professor of Irish language and literature, in an email. “Many of us have been very upset about this for a long time. Believe me, NO ONE tells you that you’ll be subject to conservative Catholic doctrine for your health care when you are being wooed for a job here.”

Can we get a bit of reportorial distance here? There's not much. Rather, we are talking about analysis coverage on the website of a major magazine.

It’s true the university’s diversity page doesn’t give a clue of the place adhering to traditional Catholic teaching. But if McKibben is telling the truth, she is incredibly naïve or clueless. I’ve taught at two universities and believe me, the health plan is one of the first things you peruse when considering the job. Usually it’s in the faculty handbook. It took me 10 minutes of paging through Notre Dame’s site before I located the faculty and staff medical benefits page. Then I clicked on the PDF for the PPO plan at the top of the list.

Sure enough, in the midst of the document is this statement:

NOTE: This Plan does not provide coverage for preventive contraceptives or contraceptive devices.

Now how did McKibben miss that? And didn't she think through the implications of working on a Catholic campus where, professors may be expected to give intellectual assent to Catholic teaching (or at the very least not openly oppose church doctrines)?

Under “infertility testing,” a close read reveals the university pays for artificial insemination (IUI) and GIFT (an infertility treatment) “if sperm is collected during normal sexual relations,” which avoids the Catholic prohibition against creating life outside of the sexual act (which is the case with in vitro fertilization). (Note to infertility experts: This is not a perfect description of Catholic doctrine on the topic, so don’t jump on me here).

Anyway, I expect someone with a doctorate in her field to have the intelligence to read the university’s benefits package very carefully. And to claim she didn’t know about it? Get serious. The reporter let these professors get off too easily. Near the end, the story reads:

It’s not clear why the university made such an abrupt about-face on its policy in the course of less than a week, but several professors speculated that negative press attention scared the administration.

Here's another crucial journalism issue: South Bend is full of conservative Catholic voices and certainly one of them could have been engaged for balance and to shed light on other comments.

Was it really about the bad press? Or are Notre Dame’s Catholic roots so shallow that the slightest threat uproots them?

There's obviously a story here about Notre Dane's cold feet and why top officials decided to change course. Sometimes answers are slow in coming. And when they are, don't use a headline proclaiming you're in on the answers.

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