Whose Body, Whose Choice?

An email was sent out to Loyola Marymount University faculty and staff on October 7, 2013, informing them of the decision that “elective abortions” would be excluded from the university’s health insurance plan coverage, but that they could purchase such coverage at their own expense through a third-party insurance option (“Decision Letter”). The email and Decision Letter were sent by then-president of Loyola Marymount University, David Burcham, and Kathleen Hannon Aikenhead, the then-chair of the Board of Trustees. In 2014, the California Department of Managed Healthcare deemed the Board’s decision illegal, and all abortions would again be covered on the school’s health insurance plan. The Decision Letter brought to light the ideological divide within the LMU community, one that reflected the divide within the nation: between those who regard a woman’s right to autonomy over her body as an essential human right and those, including the Catholic Church, who argue for the absolute sanctity of all life from the moment of conception.

Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

The purpose of the Board of Trustees as the school’s legal governing body is to maintain the educational, physical, and financial well-being of the University. In addition, the Board is meant to sustain the university’s place as a leader in Catholic higher education, something that for many includes advancing the anti-abortion beliefs of the Catholic church. A section of a 2013 issue of the Loyolan titled, “Who are the Trustees,” lists the name of all of the trustees on the board the year of the decision, their occupations and important facts about them. The Loyolan included this section to educate the community regarding the board and its process as well as so that readers could identify the people making the decision, analyze their backgrounds and potential biases and their impact on their vote. The article’s inclusion of a section with the names and occupations of the members of the Board of Trustees had the potential to fuel debate, as readers might examine board members for potential inclinations or biases.

The decision to eliminate coverage for abortions from LMU’s health insurance plan led to much scrutiny and criticism. Many members of the faculty and staff spoke out against the board’s decision, arguing that it was discriminatory and violated their human rights. The fact that faculty and staff members were willing to speak out against the Board of Trustees proves how prominent the divide was within the school. For example, in a letter to the editors of the Loyolan, pyschology professor Nora A. Murphy explained what she believed to be the problems with the Board’s original decision: “LMU’s decision to offer a third-party insurance option for abortion cover was discrimination, as those who chose that option had to pay extra for such coverage and women were disproportionately affected. Those of us who collectively voiced our opposition did so because we recognize that reproductive rights are human rights.” Professor Murphy’s statement that “reproductive rights are human rights” echoed the words of others such as the writer Katha Pollit’s statement that “abortion is an issue of fundamental human rights,” therefore exemplifying how the debate about abortion that happened at LMU reflected the overall debate happening within the nation.

The Decision Letter not only revealed the ideological divide within the LMU community, but the dispute became an example used in the broader national debate reflecting the divide within the nation. For example, Ian Lovett, in his New York Times article “Abortion Vote Exposes Rift at a Catholic University,” wrote, “Not three weeks have passed since Pope Francis said the church had grown ‘obsessed’ with abortion, declaring, ‘We have to find a new balance.’ But on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, overlooking this city’s west side, a fight over abortion now threatens to rip the school asunder.” The “new balance” mentioned by the Pope is indicative of what appears to be an insurmountable gap between the competing viewpoints on the subject of abortion at LMU and nationwide.

The divide within LMU as a result of the Decision Letter reflected the overall divide within the nation on the topic of abortion. On one side are those who hold that abortion is a fundamental right and necessary for equality. Indeed, the right to abortion is a part of  a woman’s autonomy over her body. To take away a woman’s right to abortion would be to deny her full control over her body, thereby depriving her of the right to control her body in the same way that a man can control his, resulting in inequality. For example, during four days of questioning by the Senate Judiciary during her confirmation hearing, Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke about the right to abortion: “It is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decision maker, that her choice be controlling…. If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex.” Precluding a woman from making decisions about her own body, or impeding her ability to do so is marginalizing her as a human being and discriminating against her on the basis of sex. Essentially, without a woman’s full ability to make decisions regarding her body, she cannot be a person who is equal to men. In fact, by limiting or eliminating a woman’s right to make decisions regarding a pregnancy, the government is assuming that power for itself as if she were not a person at all. Simply stated, if women do not have control over their bodies, then that power transfers over to the state. Allowing the state to have power over women’s bodies gives the state power over their lives. If the state can force a woman to maintain a pregnancy, then her body becomes an instrument of the state. To illustrate, in Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollit writes, “In the end, abortion is an issue of fundamental human rights. To force women to undergo pregnancy and childbirth against their will is to deprive them of the right to make basic decisions about their lives and well-being, and to give that power to the state.” If a woman is not permitted to decide whether to carry out a pregnancy, then the state is able to dictate her life and control her body obviating her basic human rights. Furthermore, denying her the same autonomy over her life as a man would have, discriminates against her on the basis of her sex.

On the other side of the debate are those who believe that abortion is murder, including the Catholic church. The Decision Letter was designed to further the goals of that belief.  The Catholic Church opposes abortion on the basis that it is the killing of a human being and is, therefore, immoral. Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the Church viewed life as beginning after the first trimester, making abortions that occurred in the first trimester free of sin. However, the contemporary Catholic Church believes that every abortion is the taking of a life. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops clarifies that the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” The Catholic Church’s view of abortion has thus grown more restrictive over time.

The board’s decision to exclude coverage for elective abortions from the university’s health insurance plan was designed to advance this agenda of the Catholic Church, but this decision was overturned by the 2014 California Department of Managed Healthcare decision requiring the coverage to be included in health insurance plans. Many protested this action, including people outside of the LMU, thus showing how the debate around abortion exceeded the walls of the community. In fact, the California Catholic Daily wrote about the repeal of the decision, stating,  “California Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced today that it will force Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and Santa Clara University (SCU)—as well as any other religious nonprofit or business—to violate their deeply held beliefs and provide employees insurance coverage for elective abortion.” The “deeply held beliefs” refer to the Catholic Church’s perception of abortion being a sin.

The issue of abortion has caused a massive divide in the nation. In 2013 this divide was seen on a smaller scale when the Board of Trustees at Loyola Marymount University decided to take coverage for “elective abortions” off of its primary insurance plan. The debate seen at LMU reflected the debate happening within the nation. The President of LMU and the Chair of the Board of Trustees’ decision letter revealed the ideological divide within the university, which, in turn, mirrored the divide within the country.

Written by Gianna Tognarelli, Histroy, Loyola Marymount University 2022

For Further Reading:

“Gov. Brown Forcing Santa Clara and Loyola to Cover Abortions.” California Catholic Daily, August 26, 2014. https://cal-catholic.com/gov-brown-forcing-santa-clara-and-loyola-to-cover-abortions/

Lovett, Ian. “Abortion Vote Exposes Rift at a Catholic University.” The New York Times, October 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/07/us/abortion-vote-exposes-rift-at-catholic-university.html

Pollit, Katha. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. New York City, New York: Macmillan Publishers, October 14, 2014.

“Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/respect-for-unborn-human-life.cfm. Accessed November 22, 2019.

University Governance and Administration .024. “Letter from the LMU President and the Chair of the Board of Trustees” Unprocessed Collection. Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

University Governance and Administration .024. The Loyolan. “Letter to the Editor”. Unprocessed Collection. Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA.

Waxman, Olivia. “Ruth Bader Ginsberg Wishes this Case had Legalized Abortion Instead of Roe v. Wade.” The Times. August 2, 2018. https://time.com/5354490/ruth-bader-ginsburg-roe-v-wade/