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The University of Science announcement that school health centers will no longer provide birth control services after its merger with Saint Joseph University, current students are concerned.
St. Joe’s touted the merger as a clutch move that will give the combined institution a bigger role in Philadelphia’s budding life sciences industry.
Existing students told Billy Penn that they never intended to be part of a Catholic organization.
“We didn’t sign up to be students at St. Joe’s, we signed up to be students at USciences,” said Adetoun Adeniji-Adele, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “And so for them to impose this and think they can do it without any recourse or talk to us just doesn’t seem fair.”
Rachel Prutzman, a second-year undergraduate student in biomedical sciences, raised a related point. “We send these people into the health care field,” she said of future science graduates, “but we don’t provide them with the same care that they would provide to other people.”
USciences was founded in 1821 as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. It was the first pharmacy college in North America. It is small compared to other universities in the city, with around 1,300 undergraduate students and around 1,000 graduate students.
News of the birth control policy change broke when USciences emailed some students on April 17, about six weeks before the pending change.
“Effective 6/1/2022, Student Health will no longer be permitted to prescribe or dispense birth control pills, any type of birth control, or condoms once we merge with SJU,” reads in part. in the email from USciences. “This is in accordance with Catholic doctrine which they strictly adhere to.”
The university sent another email last Monday, after The Inquirer published a story about the switch. Sent to all students, the second memo appeared to cover whether the decision to remove birth control from health centers was final.
“Currently, we are in the midst of integration discussions regarding potential changes to our health center operations,” the email reads. “Rest assured that we place the well-being of our students first and are committed to a smooth transition should current healthcare arrangements, including birth control, change.”
The eight USciences students who spoke with Billy Penn expressed a desire for greater transparency from directors regarding the merger.
“I think everyone is pretty much on the same page that we’re just tired of not knowing,” said fourth-year pharmacy student Hailey Fry. “We deserve and demand transparency and honesty, and we still don’t get it.”
Many students worried about what the merger would mean not only for access to birth control, but also for campus attitudes toward sex — or even the school curriculum.
Banning birth control in health centers creates greater stigma around sex, several students argued.
“Taking away safe space and judgmental sex” could discourage survivors of sexual assault from coming forward or seeking appropriate care, said Sarah Herter, a second-year pharmaceutical chemistry student.
Madeline King is an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at USciences (though she said she’s leaving for another opportunity soon), so she declined to comment specifically on USciences’ policies.
Generally speaking, King said: “Institutions with religious affiliations or beliefs should not have the ability to restrict insurance coverage of contraceptive options, nor should health centers be told that ‘they cannot offer pregnancy and birth control products or education.’
A St. Joe’s representative, when asked about its birth control policy, pointed out that the school is not meant to be a primary provider.
“Saint Joseph’s Student Health Centers operate as a supplement to, not a replacement of, a student’s relationship with their health care provider,” the representative said. “Family planning, birth control and prescriptions are personal and private conversations between the student and their provider.”
Herter, the pharmacy student, said she hasn’t personally used health centers for birth control, but expressed concern for students with out-of-state insurance. This is her situation, and she described the difficulty of finding a nearby health care provider who takes her insurance in New York and she also feels confident.
Access to birth control “goes hand in hand with supporting educational equity for all students, regardless of gender and income,” said Josie Urbina, a family planning obstetrician/gynecologist at UC San Francisco.
Not having access to contraception on campus means students may have to seek treatment elsewhere, disrupting classes, Urbina said. Many doctor’s offices are not open on weekends, she noted, and some health systems require an in-person visit to obtain prescription contraceptives.
Science students across the United States seeking birth control could theoretically visit Planned Parenthood, said PhD candidate Alison Yu.
But there are no family planning locations in West Philadelphia, she said, and students may have to deal with protesters or people trying to direct women to different centers, which Yu said she often saw when she was walking around the downtown outpost.
“Yes, there are alternatives,” said third-year biochemistry PhD candidate Rhea Banerjee. “But there is no real, real alternative to health care that college campuses or student health facilities in colleges can provide for students.”
King, professor of clinical pharmacy at USciences, said there are many benefits to having easy access to contraceptives for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
“People who want to avoid pregnancy should have that option. Barrier methods are essential to prevent STIs. People should have access to hormonal and non-hormonal contraceptives. Some people cannot tolerate one or the other and only have one option,” she said.
In Catholicism, any sex before marriage is considered wrong, and Catholic marriages are meant to be open to creating a new life, which means that contraception – including condoms – is prohibited even within marriage. Using birth control for “necessary therapeutic means cure bodily diseases” is permitted, according to a 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, as long as the intention is not to prevent pregnancy.
Restricting access to birth control won’t stop college students from having sex, King noted.
Besides the health effects and financial burden of finding contraception elsewhere, this type of policy can be stigmatizing for patients, and it’s a matter of autonomy, she added.
“Telling someone that they can’t have easy and/or free access to pregnancy or STI prevention is essentially saying that their opinions and needs don’t matter; they cannot make decisions about their own health care,” King said.
Several students told Billy Penn they were particularly frustrated with how and when the birth control policy change was revealed.
Owen O’Reilly, an undergraduate UScience student, said he heard about the policy from a friend and then read The Inquirer article. He hadn’t heard anything directly from the university until then. “It really pissed me off,” he said.
“We’re only about a month away from this transition that they’re talking about,” said Banerjee, the biochemistry PhD candidate. “And [they] only officially addressed it a month before they abolished birth control.
That’s not to say students discovered politics just during finals season, noted Herter, a pharmaceutical chemistry major, a typically stressful time.
Herter said she knows some people who have already transferred, although she decided not to do it herself. Many of the school’s programs have unique curricula and it can be difficult to find an equivalent, students noted.
O’Reilly is generally unhappy with the way the two universities’ administrations treated students throughout the merger process. He doesn’t like the opacity around changing policies.
The contraception policy itself is not a dealbreaker, he said, since he has not personally used university sexual health services.
He likes the research he’s working on — one of the reasons he chose USciences is that it offers undergraduate research opportunities — so he wants to stay. But he might reconsider, he said, if the administration continues to make decisions without first considering student feedback.
“It’s reasonable for a Christian university to have this policy, in the sense that it’s Christian, but it absorbs a school based on science and health,” O’Reilly said. “It goes against everything I’ve researched and read.”