On 21 April 2016, the Georgetown Voice published a shortened version of this piece. In order to include as many of the stories submitted to us as possible, H*yas for Choice decided to publish a longer version here.
H*yas for Choice members can have a reputation as a group of condom-wielding “abortionistas” who pick fights with the administration, and that’s a pity. Our purpose is not to butt heads with the administration, but rather to empower the students of Georgetown to have the necessary information to make sexual health decisions for themselves, and sexual health encompasses more than condoms and abortion.
Most Georgetown students have a vested interest in ensuring they or their partner has access to birth control, and every Georgetown student can benefit from easy and inexpensive access to STI testing. Health and Education Services (HES) and the Student Health Center attempt to persuade students that they do an adequate job providing for students’ sexual health, but how do the lived experiences of Georgetown students measure up with their purported services? For the past few months, H*yas for Choice has been conducting a survey (which can be found here) asking students to share their stories of accessing essential sexual health services from the student health center and HES and, unsurprisingly, the results were fair to middling.
Georgetown cloaks its ambiguous policies on sexual health services in deliberately vague language. At a sexual health panel HFC hosted last year, Carol Day, the director of HES, confirmed that a “prescription is not guaranteed” for birth control for the purpose of contraception from the student health center, but that birth control would be prescribed for “other reasons”. In other words, birth control is theoretically available to you if you lie. Implicitly condoning the practice of giving inaccurate information to your doctor is wholly at odds with any semblance of a functioning health care system.
Worse, even when students do need their birth control prescription for reasons beside contraception, it can be denied, despite Ms. Day’s assertion. One respondent related that, after going to the health center to get their prescription refilled, the doctor “said she could not continue prescribing me the pill since under my health records…I was on the pill for ‘contraceptive purposes’”, despite also taking it to “help with dysmenorrhea and acne”.
Student health insurance adds another layer of convoluted language. The health insurance benefits brochure notes that “birth control…regardless of intended use” will unequivocally not be covered, then concedes that “this policy is now required to provide coverage for contraceptives” and that the coverage “will not be paid for by Georgetown University” but rather by the “insurance company underwriting this plan.”
It’s confusing, and it’s intended to be confusing, because this smoke-and-mirrors charade allows the university to skirt around the true intent of its policies, which is to blindly follow the maxims of the Catholic church without regard for the impact it has on actual students trying to obtain medical care.
One might expect the situation to be clearer and more student-friendly for STI testing. After all, what controversy could there be? STI testing doesn’t violate any Catholic doctrine. And yet: “Although the attendants at the health center had guaranteed several times that the charge would be only the $10 co-pay”, one respondent narrated after a visit for STI testing, “I received a charge of $197 for the lab work that was done…They didn’t let me know the lab work would be an extra charge before they went ahead with it.” The student continued, “There is no cost-effective way to make sure you don’t have STDs, and the student health center is not a solution.”
Not only is STI testing prohibitively expensive, even on student health insurance, but often a sex-negative atmosphere can actually cause students to receive inaccurate information from their health care provider. A respondent related, “I had genital warts and [the doctor] didn’t even examine me…she said that I had a yeast infection.” Only after returning home and seeing a private ob/gyn after their condition worsened were they able to establish the true problem.
It’s clear: when the student health center and student insurance policies cloud their services and coverage in deliberately obscure language, students suffer. They are dissuaded from seeking treatment or are shamed when they do visit. One student commented that “the whole process felt very hostile” and another said that, despite being a “responsible, sexually active young woman”, if she “had ever felt embarrassed about her sexuality…it was then” because of the look she had been given when she said she her sexual partner was not her boyfriend.
As atrocious as the sex-shaming students risk suffering if they make the medically important decision of discussing their sexual activity with their doctor is, this obstacle is only one of multiple that students must overcome when trying to care for their reproductive health at Georgetown. The approximately two hundred dollars students must pay for STI testing and expensive co-pays for those seeing outside doctors are just two of the numerous financial barriers Georgetown imposes on students who seek to care for their sexual health. These basic health care needs must be accessible for all students, not just those from class-privileged backgrounds. Furthermore, trans and gender nonconforming students reported a lack of sensitivity from the staff at the Student Health Center, an offensive and unacceptable behavior from an institution that claims to value the care of the whole person. For example, one student commented, “as a gay man, I wanted to be screened for HIV and STDs…they told me to go to Whitman-Walker across town…I was told to leave.”
Our survey only confirmed what many on our campus already know all too well: there is a healthcare crisis at Georgetown. While H*yas for Choice believes that affordable access to contraceptives and on-demand abortion services is a human right, we understand that Georgetown disagrees. Despite that belief, Georgetown can take care of its students health needs without changing its stance on contraceptives. In some regards, other Jesuit schools can show Georgetown the way: once a month, for example, Loyola University Chicago works with a community partner to provide free HIV testing.
Georgetown’s current practice of providing confusing and at times contradictory information to its students can be stopped if Student Health clarifies its policies and designates a point-person to deal with all matters of sexual health and birth control. Students should not have to make an appointment and take time out of their busy schedule to see a doctor who will refuse to prescribe them birth control. To further the importance of this point, one student narrated that a provider told them, “‘I’ll prescribe it to you…but you should come back to me if you need another prescription. Not everyone will prescribe this to you.’ She only gave me two refills and expected me to come back in three months to go through the whole process all over again.”
Second, Georgetown can and should provide regular and free STI and HIV screenings to its students. And last, Georgetown must provide sensitivity training to its health care staff to end the endemic cultures of sex-shaming and mistreatment of its trans and gender nonconforming students.
In the meantime, what can Georgetown students do? H*yas for Choice is committed to working alongside the student body, and will help any student find the necessary information to make and execute informed decisions about their health. For birth control purposes specifically, we recommend checking online, as many doctors at Planned Parenthood and other facilities will provide online consultations and send your prescription in the mail. We stand ready to help students navigate the confusing and dangerous mess that is Georgetown’s current health system, and we will continue to advocate for improvement until every Georgetown student has access to the health care services they need.
Emily Stephens (left, SFS ’17) is the organizing coordinator of HFC. Kory Stuer (right, COL ’19) is on HFC’s leadership team.