Meet Two of the Women Fighting Against Their University for Reproductive Rights

Irish 4 Reproductive Health, a student activist group, filed suit against the Trump administration and Notre Dame over the school's refusal to offer birth control coverage to students and faculty.
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The Golden Dome atop the main building on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.

The Golden Dome atop the main building on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Democrats took control on Tuesday of the House of Representatives, which means insurance coverage of birth control via the Affordable Care Act most likely won't be gutted. But for students and faculty who receive health insurance coverage at the University of Notre Dame, the fight for birth control has been ongoing since last year, with no end in sight.

The ACA prohibits sex discrimination in health care and requires that preventive services for women be covered fully, including guaranteed access to all Food and Drug Administration-approved forms of birth control. But the Trump administration struck a deal last year with 73 employers and universities, including Notre Dame, allowing them to cite religious or moral objections in order to end birth control coverage that was provided under the ACA.

More recently, the National Women's Law Center, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit against the Trump administration and Notre Dame on behalf of a group of student activists, known as Irish 4 Reproductive Health.

For more insights on Irish 4 Reproductive Health's activism efforts, Pacific Standard spoke to organizers Kate Bermingham and Mauna Dasari, both of whom are doctoral candidates at Notre Dame.

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How did Irish 4 Reproductive Health garner support and recruit members?

Kate Bermingham: Many of us were working together well before I4RH formed to push back against Notre Dame's intention to completely rescind insurance coverage for birth control. When the Trump administration announced the interim final rules in October of 2017, graduate and undergraduate students led the campus-wide resistance effort, though these policies also affect faculty and staff.

Mauna Dasari: We have also garnered support and new membership through our actions to expand access to reproductive and sexual health resources and to improve campus climate around issues of consent, safe sex, reproductive health, and sexual assault.

In your opinion, why shouldn't Notre Dame be allowed to deny birth control coverage?

Bermingham: Restricting the methods of birth control that are available to students and employees endangers our health and well-being. The Trump administration's settlement with Notre Dame, which violates the Affordable Care Act, would allow our insurers to drop certain long-lasting methods of birth control, such as copper IUDs. Women who experience intimate partner violence are more likely to opt for such long-lasting and discreet methods that their partners cannot interfere with—so this policy could compound the effects of abuse.

Dasari: In addition to being the largest employer in St. Joseph County, Notre Dame prides itself as welcoming of diversity in religion, culture, and sexual orientation. However, by barring access to basic reproductive health care, Notre Dame is denying thousands of students, faculty, and staff the right to make their own decisions about their health care. Notre Dame's decision to deny birth control coverage also further marginalizes groups that historically have fewer resources to pay out-of-pocket for birth control.

How did Irish 4 Reproductive Health forge a relationship with National Women's Law Center?

Bermingham: The National Women's Law Center reached out to us after reading a petition we circulated demanding clarity from Notre Dame's administration regarding our insurance coverage.

I imagine being a member of a reproductive rights group of this caliber can feel like a full-time job on top of your academic work. Do you ever feel like transferring to a more progressive school?

Bermingham: You're so right about this feeling like an extra full-time job—and one we are all doing on a volunteer basis. It helps that our organization is non-hierarchical, so we share responsibilities and make decisions together. We do our best to apply our intersectional feminist principles to our own division of labor and take into account the different ways in which our members might be relatively vulnerable or disadvantaged.

As to your question about transferring, leaving a Ph.D. program—especially when you are already deep into the dissertation phase—would be extremely costly, personally and professionally. I have a fantastic adviser and dissertation committee, and a supportive community among my fellow graduate students. While it is frustrating to deal with this unnecessary hurdle in addition to the other stresses of graduate school, the fight for reproductive justice and gender equality is particularly crucial at Notre Dame. It has been deeply gratifying to come together with my fellow students to improve the climate around reproductive health, to push back against affronts to our rights, and to demonstrate the power of collective action.

Dasari: My Ph.D. project and future career as a scientist are always at the forefront of my decision-making process. I came to Notre Dame to pursue a very specific Ph.D. project studying the non-human primate gut microbiome, and I work with an incredible adviser and network that I cannot access elsewhere. Related to my career, I love doing STEM outreach, especially in settings that reduce barriers for marginalized groups, but I also understand that there are other factors that play into who gets to become a scientist. Access to basic health care is one of those factors, so while I am here, I need to work toward that for those that can't.

Do you know of any cases where students have transferred out because of Notre Dame's birth control opt-out?

Dasari: I don't know of those that have transferred from Notre Dame, but I know women have declined offers here in at least the last year because of the regressive policy toward reproductive health. Additionally, there are many women, myself included, that came to Notre Dame when the policy was in compliance with the ACA and have had to make drastic changes to our health-care plans in preparation for all the changes.

Have you received any backlash from Notre Dame students or faculty/staff since filing the lawsuit?

Bermingham: Thankfully, I do not believe anyone has experienced backlash as a result of the lawsuit—though we make sure to tell new members that that is a possibility when they are considering joining the organization.

Did the Trump administration file its answer to the lawsuit on October 11th? What was their response? And how do you all plan on responding?

Bermingham: The Trump administration and Notre Dame moved to dismiss the lawsuit, as expected. NWLC takes care of all litigation and official correspondence—we're grateful that the lawsuit is in their capable hands.

What are your next steps in this fight for reproductive justice?

Bermingham: Education is a big priority for us. We are planning to hold an event in the near future that brings awareness to maternal health risks for women of color. Indiana has the third highest maternal mortality rate in the country, and black women are three times as likely as white women to die as a result of childbirth. What policies might we advocate for, both on-campus and at the state level, to address this? We are also planning creative ways to provide the basics of sex education. Many Notre Dame undergraduates report that this is something the student body desperately needs, especially since a significant number of the students attended high schools that had abstinence-only sex ed.

Dasari: One of our recurring programs addresses the lack of contraceptive resources available to Notre Dame students by distributing free condoms packaged with information about how to obtain sober and enthusiastic consent. Long-term goals include adding sections about sexual health education to required classes, reducing the stigma associated with sexual well-being, and offering emergency contraception and pregnancy tests at little to no cost.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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