It is the leadership and spirit of women and men who know when to speak up and stand up for our rights that create social change. When the presidents at two Jesuit-affiliated universities in California tried to bluster their way into canceling abortion benefits for faculty, staff, and their dependents, the Trust Women/Silver Ribbon Campaign, a project of the Center for Policy Analysis, geared up a challenge. We researched key rules and regulations, linked a powerful coalition of activist faculty with key organizations to shine a bright public light on the problem, and strategized and targeted the state regulatory authority that had the power to reverse the universities’ action. On August 22, 2014, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) issued formal letters to California’s 7 major insurance companies to clarify that California law “prohibits health plans from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. Exclusions and limitations are incompatible with both the law and multiple California judicial decisions that have unambiguously established that every pregnant woman has the fundamental right to choose to either bear a child or to have a legal abortion.”
Turning It Around! How did this happen? In the Fall of 2013, faculty at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles and at Santa Clara University (SCU) were distressed when their presidents announced that their university health insurance plans were dropping long-standing coverage for abortions. The universities justified their actions based on unspecified changes in state and federal laws, including the Affordable Care Act.
Here’s the catch: The faculty did not agree.
Anna Muraco, a sociology professor at LMU, was shocked. With no idea whether the change was legal, she began writing about it online.
In Santa Clara, law professor Stephen Diamond resigned an appointment at the SCU Ethics Center, telling the local media that the administration was violating its obligation to consult with the faculty on a change in working conditions of this magnitude. History professor Nancy Unger was similarly distressed and outraged. Her long and successful career at SCU had thrived in an atmosphere of commitment to social justice and diversity, with respect for Catholic doctrine. In this case, “Father Doesn’t Know Best,” she wrote in the San Jose Mercury News.
In fact, both Universities were violating longstanding California laws that require employer health plans to cover abortions. But campus and health plan administrators asserted that the change was legal, and would proceed.
Then, we called Prof. Nancy Unger.
“When Ellen Shaffer, Director of the Trust Women/Silver Ribbon Campaign (TWSR) reached out to me about the situation at Santa Clara, I felt as if someone had thrown us a lifeline.” Professor Nancy Unger, University of Santa Clara
“Within a week, we were on the phone with a coalition of advocacy and legal organizations. With TWSR’s guidance, our campuses gathered the information we needed to mount a challenge, and combined the skills and expertise of the coalition partners to develop a strategy that worked. We turned our situations around.” Ana Muraco, Associate Professor of Sociology, Loyola Marymount University
The faculty didn’t leave it at that. At Santa Clara, they voted by secret electronic ballot. Two-to-one, they told the University president and the trustees: Take it back. Reinstate our benefits. And consult us if you’d like to know what we believe.
Meanwhile advocates pieced together what had happened through meetings with DMHC. After Initial assurance that there had been an error, the fact-finding continued as campuses were about to reopen in Aug. 2014. The California state legislature’s Women’s Caucus weighed in.
Legal and media staff based in Sacramento got the word from the Governor’s office that DMHC had concluded their investigation. They identified the errors that had set events in motion, and would release a correction the following day.
On August 22, 2014, the California Department of Managed Health Care issued formal letters to California’s 7 major insurance companies to clarify that California law “prohibits health plans from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. Exclusions and limitations are incompatible with both the law and multiple California judicial decisions that have unambiguously established that every pregnant woman has the fundamental right to choose to either bear a child or to have a legal abortion.”
Stigma and intimidation can compound confusion about the hodge-podge of laws and court decisions that determine our rights to decide whether and when to have a child, free of coercion, discrimination or violence. But coverage for safe, legal abortion care has been restored at SCU and LMU. And the spirit of advocacy must continue to animate the law.