Confronting Fordham: S.A.G.E.S.’ Fight for Healthcare and Free Speech

Until recently, students at Fordham University knew Fordham SAGES (Students for Sex and Gender Equity and Safety) primarily for the “condom drops” they have been conducting since the beginning of the school year. But at the beginning of the month, the previously-anonymous group went public as they delivered a petition with over 1,200 student signatures on it to Father Joseph McShane, the university’s president.

SAGES’ demands include free condoms in accessible community spaces, free and confidential access to birth control, STD testing, and GYN services done by GYN professionals at the health center on a reliable basis, pregnancy and childcare resources for Fordham community members, a free speech zone, sex positive orientation programming, an end to Fordham’s sex-negative gendered dorm pass policies, and gender-neutral housing options for trans and gender non-conforming students. All together, it may seem like a hefty list of demands, but the list isn’t actually asking for that much.  For example, their demand is for a free speech zone, not free speech throughout campus. Even that much has been asked for by students and denied by Fordham before.

The fight for access to birth control is not unique to Fordham, despite the fact that the UN has named it a human right. Women across the United States, and, indeed, the whole world, are in a constant fight for their reproductive rights and for their sexual health and safety. This manifests in battles over sexual assault and harassment and in the fight for the right to safe and legal abortions. In this case, the fight is over bodily agency, the right to retain full control over one’s body and all decisions that pertain to it, in the context of the accessibility of various contraceptives for women.

Students conducted “condom drops” at the homecoming game and other school events.

However, Fordham is not the first to be confronted by a student group along the same lines as SAGES.  Despite the church’s internal division on the issue, this fight has been mirrored on campuses across the nation. Students at Boston College recently faced disciplinary action by their administration for the distribution of condoms and pamphlets regarding sexual health; students at Georgetown University, who have recently declared their support for SAGES, have been able to navigate the university’s policies by operating within the free speech zone on campus and remaining unaffiliated. Notre Dame was forced to adjust their contraceptive policies because of the public funding they receive, but no such change has yet to occur at Fordham, which also receives public funding. Though the public money is a major point of contention (especially with Fordham’s Law students), it is not the problem itself, and the reform of policies would be preferable to dropping funding in the eyes of activists.

The absence of a free-speech zone (and a free-speech campus, for that matter) is not only damaging to the individuals who wish to voice their concerns regarding administrative practices, but also to the academic integrity of the institution.  The importance of free speech in academic environments is addressed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

“A university exists to educate students and advance the frontiers of human knowledge, and does so by acting as a “marketplace of ideas” where ideas compete. The intellectual vitality of a university depends on this competition—something that cannot happen properly when students or faculty members fear punishment for expressing views that might be unpopular with the public at large or disfavored by university administrators.”

Fordham seems to view academia and student life as mutually exclusive; the freedom students experience in their classrooms does not extend to their personal lives on campus.  The notion of limiting education to the classroom contradicts fundamental Jesuit teaching.  As the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, said, students are meant to “go forth and set the world on fire,” to “act as though everything depends on [us].”  As students, we are constantly called to question normative thought in order to live more informed, enriched, and just lives.  The very Jesuit tradition the administration uses to justify their repressive policies calls for the kind of action-based activism SAGES has been making use of.

SAGES’ demands aim not only to protect student’s physical health, but also their mental well-being. Their demands for sex-positive university programming, gender neutral housing options, and reform of Fordham’s sex-shaming gendered dorm pass policies are aimed at this goal. A sex-negative environment – one that opposes one or more aspects of human sexual behavior on social or religious grounds – makes forming a culture of consent nearly impossible. The school has recently made a great show of its efforts to combat sexual assault on campus, but policies that prohibit opposite-sex guests, “cohabitation,” and contraceptives prevent a dialogue of affirmative consent. When sex is condemned, we lose the opportunity to educate students about healthy, safe, and consensual relationships.

On top of being sex-negative, paternalistic, heteronormative and ignoring the potential for platonic friendships between individuals of different genders, these policies are highly ineffective. Fordham’s policies are full of useful loopholes for non-conforming students, but contribute to a culture that erases queer, asexual, and other gender and sexuality minorities’ (GSM) identities. Student can engage in queer relationships without breaching policy, but only because the system does not account for their existence.

Fordham’s policies regarding birth control and contraceptives are detailed in the university student handbook.  The policies explicitly prohibit the distribution of contraceptives on Fordham’s campus, including the Student Health Center.  While Fordham will allow students to schedule routine gynecological exams, they are administered by nurse practitioners, not by GYN professionals. The health center also fails to provide a list of gynecologists in the area that students could seek out.

Most significantly, one of the main issues taken with Fordham’s policies is its refusal to prescribe or administer birth control. Despite the many non-contraceptive benefits of birth control (including the treatment of irregular menstrual cycles, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and reduced risk of certain types of cancer) their public funding, and commitment to accepting non-religiously conforming students, Fordham refuses to make birth control in any form accessible to its students on religious grounds. The policy states that it makes exceptions for non-contraceptive use of hormonal birth control, but in practice this policy is almost never carried out. One student’s account of her particularly tumultuous (though not uncommon) experience can be found in the Village Voice.

These patterns of erasure and limitations on the autonomy of individuals are not unique to colleges and universities.The same policies that limit access to contraceptives for Fordham students are mirrored in the policies of corporations, health care providers, and other institutions. The recent Hobby Lobby ruling, for example, is yet another instance of a corporation receiving individual liberties that it then denies to its dependents.

SAGES posted flyers on and around campus

Since the Trustees of Dartmouth vs Woodward decision in 1819, corporate personhood has been recognized in United States courts, a concept that grants corporations acting as individuals the rights extended under the fourteenth amendment. However, this practice allows for corporations with significant capital to avoid providing essential health care to women under the guise of defending their own religious liberty. In reality, these concerns are part of systemic and oppressive restrictions that police women’s bodies rather than an affront to the values of corporations.

Moreover, it’s also important to note that the way in which contraceptives are talked about is highly gendered. The breadth of what is covered by the term includes everything from “pulling out” to condoms to hormonal birth control, but a huge portion of the attention the issue garners focuses primarily on this last form of protection. Because hormonal birth control is seen as applying solely to women, this aspect of reproductive health ends up being seen and dismissed as a “women’s issue.” This ignores that male birth control exists (and that condoms or dental dams are the business of both parties engaging in sex), puts the onus of preventing pregnancy on women (and therefore the blame if she does get pregnant), and erases the fact that these hormones are not used solely for the purpose of birth control. In AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals, they’re used to treat or prevent acne, irregular or debilitating periods, cysts, and even cancer. These same hormones are also used (in different dosages) as part of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) treatments that help trans women to develop bodies they can be comfortable in.

Fordham’s refusal to extend birth control to its students on campus on the basis of religious conviction is not consistent with the community of tolerance it publicizes.  The absence of free speech on campus severely limits student involvement in administrative policies that negatively impact their lives.

This issue is not only extremely gendered, but the decisions made by the Supreme Court and others operate under the (highly privileged) illusion of choice. A mantra of the Hobby Lobby campaign was that individuals could choose where they seek employment – meaning that if the employee’s medical needs conflicted with the religious ideals of the company, they should seek employment elsewhere. However, Hobby Lobby has a minimum wage of $14/hr, almost double the federally mandated minimum wage.  While justices of the Supreme Court have the security provided by an indefinite term, five out of nine seem to have forgotten the life of the potentially unemployed. Not everyone has the luxury of turning down a decent-paying and potentially rewarding job due to one element of a company’s health care policy. Similarly, Fordham prides itself on the amount of merit-based scholarships it extends to its students. Many students would not be able to attend Fordham if they had not been offered merit-based aid. Students should not have to compromise their safety or sexual health in order to receive a high-quality education.

Those who have the privilege to govern cannot exclusively cater to the preferences of those in power.  Fordham’s refusal to extend birth control to its students on campus on the basis of religious conviction is not consistent with the community of tolerance it publicizes.  The absence of free speech on campus severely limits student involvement in administrative policies that negatively impact their lives.  The lived reality of Fordham leaves a stark contrast with the way it presents itself, and is instead stifling, shaming, and exclusive to large portions of its student body. Fordham’s atmosphere is a microcosm of larger systems that negatively affect significant sections of the population. The most frustrating part may be that they can not only do these things legally, but that they have been and will continue to be validated by those they consider valuable.

SAGES represents those that, it seems, the university doesn’t consider valuable – its students. With the explicit support of over 1,200 students and alumni at the time they turned in the petition and continually growing awareness and support of the group throughout the student body, SAGES fights not for a few students, but for all of them. SAGES seems to recognize that all liberation is tied together; injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Success at Fordham could also set a precedent for the reform of other universities’ policies, and could be a stepping stone to overturning larger systems that strip women of their control over their own bodies.   Students of SAGES have proven themselves eager and ready to fight; they take action in the form of a rally outside Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Thursday, November 20th – today – with support from Fordham students as well as non-Fordham groups that recognize the importance of SAGES’ stand.


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