By Gary Walker
Moving in the direction that other Catholic universities have taken over the last several months, the Loyola Marymount University Board of Trustees voted Oct. 7 to eliminate elective abortion coverage from its employees’ health insurance plans.
In a joint statement, LMU President David Burcham and Kathleen Hannon Aikenhead, chair of the Board of Trustees, explained the board’s decision and delved into some of the history surrounding this controversial topic.
“When we learned that LMU had, for the first time, been given the option to exclude elective abortions from its principal health insurance plans, we decided that the governing board of LMU should address this difficult issue,” Hannon Aikenhead and Burcham wrote. “We did so because we take very seriously our fiduciary role as guardians of LMU and, particularly, upholding its Jesuit/Marymount and Catholic identity, mission, history and tradition.
“We acknowledge that the issue of abortion is extremely complicated and encompasses varied and competing values that often leave no one happy,” they continued.
“Nonetheless, we believe that the right to life and dignity for every human being is a fundamental part of Catholic beliefs (all other rights flow from this primary right to life and dignity), and that this vision needs to be evidenced in LMU’s policies and procedures.
“Thus, the board decided that LMU’s principal insurance plans in 2014 will not provide coverage for elective abortions. All other aspects of reproductive health coverage will remain the same. We will continue to cover therapeutic abortions, contraception and other forms of reproductive care mandated by the state of California. The rates for the principal LMU plans will be set based solely on the benefits provided under those plans.”
The Argonaut first previewed in its Oct. 3 issue the university’s intent to remove the abortion coverage from its employees’ insurance and subsequently, the topic has generated national attention.
Over the last three weeks, some of the university’s professors have mobilized to counter the university’s plan, which was first announced Aug. 15. Over 100 faculty and staff members signed a petition asking the trustees to refrain from removing the elective reproductive portion of their insurance prior to the board meeting.
In lieu of the eliminated abortion coverage, the board said it will offer another insurance option to its employees that will cover elective abortions, called a third party administrator plan.
“The (plan) will be selected very shortly in order to facilitate an alternative,” the board wrote. The third party-managed plan will cover elective abortions, but employees will pay a “slightly higher premium,” Hannon and Burcham said in their joint statement.
“The employee will be responsible for the entirety of the cost associated with this additional coverage and, thus, no LMU dollars will be used in paying for this additional coverage,” they wrote.
Jessica Osorio, who graduated from LMU in 2008, sees the third party offering as an attempt to placate those on both sides of the abortion divide.
“LMU wants it both ways. It wants to make a stand by eliminating abortion coverage from faculty and its staff’s health insurance plans so that it can align itself more closely with Catholic doctrine,” she said. “Then, to appease supporters of full reproductive rights, LMU will offer a separate plan where an employee may opt for abortion coverage by paying more for it.”
LMU professor Anna Muraco says she understands that the board had to take into account the church’s teachings and beliefs when it voted to end the abortion provision and thinks that others are now somewhat mollified with the alternate plan.
“I’m not as convinced as others that this is a compromise,” said Muraco, a tenured professor who teaches sociology.
She also takes issue with the notion that the Board of Trustees’ stance on abortion is grounded solely in the church’s teachings. “That is faulty logic to presuppose that there is only one Catholic doctrine,” said Muraco, who was raised Catholic. “Not all LMU employees are Catholic.”
Some of the more conservative Catholic organizations consider the decision to provide an alternate insurance plan to the university’s employees a capitulation. “At the end of the day, this insurance scheme facilitates employees’ abortions,” Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly said in a statement to the Catholic News Agency.
“The bishops declared a similar scheme unacceptable in the federal (Health and Human Services) mandate, which forces Catholics to facilitate coverage for contraceptives and sterilization. Much worse, LMU is itself funding coverage for contraception and sterilization, while also enabling abortion coverage.”
The Cardinal Newman Society is a conservative Catholic organization that says its mission is to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education.”
Christopher Kaczor, a philosophy professor at LMU, did not return calls for comment. But he told Catholic Education Daily, an online publication of the Cardinal Newman Society, “It’s like saying abortion is seriously wrong, I will not drive you to the abortion clinic, but wait here and I’ll have my brother drive you — and that somehow gives them clean hands,” he said. “It’s a victory for the side that wants LMU to be a secular place.”
Serena Josel, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, sees the LMU trustees vote as part of a broader plan by religious and social conservatives nationwide to curtail or eliminate reproductive freedom. She cited North Carolina, Texas and Missouri as states that have moved to reduce abortion care or where clinics cannot offer contraception.
Muraco agrees that the LMU action can impact reproductive freedom. “It is also an issue of equity,” the professor told The Argonaut Oct. 3.
“This policy change affects only women, so on that basis it can be perceived as being discriminatory.”
While it may be unknown to the public, the majority of healthcare plans include abortion coverage, according to Josel. “At least 65 percent of insurance plans cover abortion and contraception,” she noted.
Osorio sees a correlation between the national debate around healthcare, the Oct. 1 opening of healthcare exchanges through the Affordable Care Act, its position on reproductive rights and LMU’s ability to eliminate elective abortion coverage.
“This decision by LMU’s Board of Trustees needs to be contextualized within the health policy changes rolling out of the Affordable Care Act. Millions of the uninsured will gain heath coverage in a few months, yet we need to question which legal rights are in jeopardy because of this policy,” she said.
The LMU alumna views the healthcare laws as putting “individual rights against the rights of religious institutions,” therefore allowing LMU to deny abortion coverage to its employees.
“This has repercussions for reproductive rights nationwide and has left an open door to those inclined to chip away at reproductive rights,” she asserted.
Muraco said the board wants the comprehensive benefits committee to oversee the new third party plan, but she noted in the Oct. 3 Argonaut story how the board previously decided to bypass the committee and take a vote on the health insurance plan.
“I find it a little strange that the board would want to have this vetted by the comprehensive benefits committee after they’ve already taken a position on (the elective abortion provision),” she said. “Abortion has never been discussed in any of the committee meetings.”
Beginning Oct. 28, LMU employees will be able to choose their desired coverage during the open enrollment period.
Muraco reiterated what she had said previously regarding legal action. While her statements were characterized on certain websites as a “threat,” the professor said she had not decided whether or not to explore the legal option.
“I think it would be unwise to take anything off the table,” she said.
LMU Board of Trustees removes abortion coverage from healthcare insurance
By Gary Walker