I was in court in Indiana last month, explaining to a federal judge that the Trump-Pence administration’s rules that would allow employers and universities to use religion to deny employees and students access to birth control violate religious and reproductive freedom.
The clients Americans United represents with the National Women’s Law Center and the Center for Reproductive Rights in the Irish 4 Reproductive Health v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lawsuit were at the top of my mind – courageous University of Notre Dame students who have lost access to contraception because of these rules and a secret backroom settlement agreement that the administration negotiated with Notre Dame.
PHOTO: Alison Tanner during her graduation from UC Davis
But I also couldn’t help thinking about another college student whose health, education and professional goals were undermined by a university that didn’t support her reproductive rights. That college student was me.
More than 10 years ago, just a few months into my first year at the University of California at Davis, I learned that I was pregnant. It was my first time away from home, and I was receiving full financial aid. Further complicating my situation, the dorm where I lived would not house pregnant and parenting students. I couldn’t afford to take care of a child while attending school, let alone pay for off-campus housing too. So I chose to have an abortion – a decision I don’t regret.
I was not the first, and surely wasn’t the last, student to face financial insecurity because of a pregnancy. Currently, one in four undergraduate students are parents, and the unintended pregnancy rate is highest among 18- to 24-year-olds. And even though I decided to end my pregnancy, I believe universities should support students who choose to become parents. No one should have to choose between a pregnancy and a place to live or the education of their dreams.
My experience at UC Davis also affirmed for me the vital importance of access to affordable birth control. I started college before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed. Prior to that law, most health insurance, including my own, charged hefty copayments for contraceptives. With the Women’s Health Amendment to the ACA, Congress recognized that contraception is critical to women’s health and equality and that no woman should be deprived of control over her body because of her income.
We should always be free to decide for ourselves if, when and how to start a family. Birth control allows us to make our own choices about our bodies, manage our medical conditions, pursue our education and participate in the workforce.
My choices in college allowed me to continue my education at Georgetown University Law Center. Like many students, I selected Georgetown not because of its religious affiliation but because it was the right fit for my academic and professional goals. However, Georgetown also struggles to respect students’ reproductive rights – some of its Catholic leaders have voiced religious objections to providing affordable birth control access in its insurance plans, while at the same time denying on-campus housing to parenting students.
So, both of the universities I attended wanted to have a say in students’ reproductive decisions: They don’t want to help prevent unintended pregnancies, but they will kick you out of your dorm if you’re pregnant. They don’t want you to have an abortion, but they don’t want you to use birth control either.
I had affordable access to birth control at Georgetown thanks to the federal government’s accommo dation for religiously affiliated organizations, which ensures that students and employees have contraceptive coverage directly from insurance providers. But some universities and employers – like Notre Dame – objected even to this compromise and sued. And while those lawsuits were still pending, the Trump-Pence administration came along and turned the pre-existing workaround into a sweeping justification for discrimination by granting the University of Notre Dame and other religious objectors the right to block insurers from providing contraceptive coverage.
It is unconstitutional for our government to impose one set of religious beliefs, or religion at all, on everyone else. But that is undeniably what the Trump birth control rules do. Using religion to deny people access to reproductive health care is a violation of church-state separation. And it is an attack on reproductive freedom. It is discrimination, plain and simple.
Religious freedom and reproductive freedom are both intensely personal issues. No one has the right to impose their beliefs on these issues onto us – not our universities, not our employers and certainly not our government. But as we see in the repeated attacks on birth control access and in the recent attempts to ban abortions, religion is increasingly being used to control our bodies, our health and our lives.
Protecting reproductive freedom and religious freedom isn’t just a legal and professional pursuit for me. It’s a personal mission. That’s why it was an honor for me to be in that Indiana courtroom fighting for both.
Alison Tanner is just completing a two-year term as a Steven Gey Legal Fellow in Americans United’s Legal Department.