US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What does abortion coverage have to do with academic freedom?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

It has been well documented that despite the U.S. bishops’ very vocal opposition to the church being required to provide health insurance that covers abortion and contraception, Catholic organizations (including the Archdiocese of New York and a number of Catholic colleges and universities) have done so for quite some time. Among those that covered abortion—at least until this week—was Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit school in Los Angeles.

That changed on Monday when the university’s board of trustees voted to end coverage of “elective abortions” under their health insurance plan (contraception and “therapeutic abortions”—those deemed medically necessary by a doctor to save the mother's life—will still be covered). Employees will still have the option of buying an unsubsidized, outside health plan that would cover abortion, which hasn’t really satisfied critics of the university’s policy.

Instead of appeasing those who believed the university was losing its Catholic identity, all the board's decision seems to have done is upset more people, primarily Loyola Marymount's faculty and staff. The New York Times reports that some faculty members are worried that the elimination of abortion coverage is going to change the culture of the campus, and not in a good way. 

Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount, told the Times that this could signal the end of the university's diverse atmosphere that allows for the free exchange of ideas. “If this represents a shift in what it means for Loyola to be a Catholic university, and being a Catholic university now means exclusion, I think Loyola would lose something very special. It could dramatically change who’s attracted to the university and what faculty want to be involved.”

Christian history professor Anna Harrison also took the change to be an ominous sign: “For a lot of us, it looks like some of our worst fears about teaching at a Catholic university are coming true,” she said. “If teachers are going to become more cautious and less creative in the classroom, then it’s the students who will lose out. We don’t want faculty who are afraid to embrace the complexity and richness of the subjects they’re teaching.”

While I understand the faculty’s concern over being able to teach a variety of viewpoints, these reactions strike me as being a tad overly dramatic. Although I suppose it is possible that professors might turn down an offer to work at a university that doesn’t cover abortion in their health insurance (even though it offers the option of paying for additional coverage that does), I don’t know that enough of them would consider it a deal breaker for it to “dramatically change” the university.

I'm never a big fan of the slippery slope argument, and in this case it seems a long way from where we are now to the bottom of the slope that some professors see as an inevitable outcome. There's a big difference between a university being an environment where ideas, and even Catholic teaching, can be openly discussed and debated and one that limits the coverage its employees can receive in their health care plans. Unlike with contraception, there is no law that an employer must provide coverage of abortion, and in the case of a Catholic employer, it is hard to make a justification for why it would be covered in the first place. Losing this coverage might be upsetting to some employees, but it shouldn't impact what they are able to do in the classroom. 

Further down the educational ladder, Catholic elementary and high schools have undergone a much more serious crackdown, as several have fired teachers who don’t follow church teaching (and in at least one case, even those who privately disagree with the church but don’t publicly say so in the classroom). Teachers in these schools have a lot more to worry about than university professors; though Catholic universities have faced their share of scrutiny from watchdog groups who criticize the choice of commencement speakers or on-campus events, most universities themselves have thus far not been nearly as strict in limiting the freedom of their professors. 

In the case of Loyola Marymount—and at plenty of other Catholic universities around the country—I wouldn't expect that to change anytime soon.