Last week, students returning to campus at Oberlin College in Ohio got a shock: A local news outlet reported that the campus’ student health services would severely limit who could get contraception prescriptions. They would only be given to treat health problems — not for the purpose of preventing pregnancy — and emergency contraception would only be available to victims of sexual assault.
It turned out the college had outsourced its student health services to a Catholic health agency – and like other Catholic health institutions, it follows religious directives that prohibit contraception to prevent pregnancy. They also prohibit gender-affirming care.
“I would characterize the student’s reaction as outrage,” says Remsen Welsh, a fourth-year Oberlin student and co-director of the student-run Sexual Information Center on campus. “A lot of people in my circles were sending [the news story] around like, what is happening?”
Although the college quickly came up with a new plan to offer reproductive health services to students on campus, the incident at Oberlin shows the wide reach of Catholic health care in the U.S., and how the rules these institutions follow can limit access to contraception.
Now that many states – including Ohio – have adopted restrictions or outright bans on abortion, that’s also raised the stakes for contraception access.
Religious restrictions affect many health care settings
Issued by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, the Ethical and Religious Directives that guide Catholic health care systems “prohibit a broad swath of reproductive care,” including birth control pills, IUDs, tubal ligation and vasectomies, says Dr. Debra Stulberg, a professor of family medicine at the University of Chicago who has researched how these directives play out in health care.
Catholic hospitals have long been a mainstay of health care in America. And these days, the directives apply to a wide range of settings where people seek reproductive health care – including urgent care centers, doctors’ offices and outpatient surgery centers that have been bought by or merged with Catholic health systems.
They can also apply when Catholic health agencies are hired to manage health care services for other institutions, which is what happened at Oberlin.
Four of the 10 largest health care systems in the country are Catholic, according to a 2020 report. In some counties, they dominate the market. In 52 communities, the report found, a Catholic hospital is the only one around within a 45-minute drive.
“After all this consolidation, this is where it shakes out, where we’ve got about 40% of reproductive age women living in areas with high or dominant Catholic hospital market share,” says Marian Jarlenski, a health policy researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, who examined the data in 2020.
‘Not transparent at all’
Patients often aren’t aware that these restrictions might affect the care they get, says Lois Uttley,