University of the Sciences in Philadelphia

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The University of the Sciences’ announcement that school health centers will no longer provide birth control services after its merger with Saint Joseph’s University has current students worried.

St. Joe’s has touted the merger as a clutch move that will give the combined institution a bigger role in Philadelphia’s burgeoning life sciences industry.

Existing students told Billy Penn they never intended to be part of a Catholic organization.

“We didn’t sign up to be St. Joe’s students, we signed up to be USciences students,” said Adetoun Adeniji-Adele, a PhD candidate in the chemistry and biochemistry department. “And so for them to impose that and think that they can do that without any kind of recourse or actually speaking to us just doesn’t seem fair.”

Rachel Prutzman, a second-year undergrad studying biomedical sciences, made a related point. “We’re sending these people out into the health care field,” she said about future USciences graduates, “but we’re not providing them with the same care that they would be providing to other people.”

USciences was founded in 1821 as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. It was the first college of pharmacy in North America. It is small compared to other universities in the city, with about 1,300 undergrads and around 1,000 graduate students.

News of the change in birth control policy broke when USciences sent an email to some students on April 17, about six weeks before the pending shift.

“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,” the USciences email read, in part. “This is in accordance with Catholic doctrine which they abide by strictly.”

The university sent another email last Monday, after The Inquirer published a story about the switch. Sent to all students, the second note appeared to hedge on whether the decision to pull birth control from health centers was final.

“Presently, we are in the midst of integration discussions regarding potential changes in  operations at our health center,” the email said. “Rest assured that we place primary importance on the well-being of our students and commit to a smooth transition if current health care provisions, including birth control, change.”

All eight USciences students who spoke with Billy Penn expressed a desire for more transparency from administrators regarding the merger.

“I think everybody is pretty much on the same page that we’re just tired of not knowing,” said Hailey Fry, a fourth-year pharmacy student. “We deserve and we are demanding transparency and honesty, and we’re still not getting it.”

Many students were concerned about what the merger would mean not only for birth control access, but also campus attitudes toward sex — or even the school’s curriculum.

Barring birth control from health centers creates a larger stigma around sex, several students argued.

“Taking away a safe space and putting judgement on sex at all” could discourage sexual assault survivors them from coming forward or seeking appropriate care, said Sarah Herter, a second-year undergraduate studying pharmaceutical chemistry.

Madeline King is an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at USciences (though she said she’s leaving soon for another opportunity), so she declined to comment on USciences’ policies specifically.

Speaking generally, King said, “Institutions with religious affiliations or beliefs shouldn’t have the ability to restrict insurance coverage of contraceptive options, nor should health centers be told they can’t offer pregnancy and contraceptive products or education.”

A representative from St. Joe’s, asked about its birth control policy, stressed that the school is not meant to be a primary provider.

“Saint Joseph’s Student Health Centers operate as a supplement to, and not a replacement for, 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.”

An issue of equity and of health

Herter, the pharmaceutical student, said she hasn’t personally used the health centers for birth control, but voiced concern for students with out-of-state insurance. That’s her situation, and she described difficulty finding a nearby healthcare provider who takes her New York insurance and she also feels like she can trust.

Birth control access “goes hand in hand with supporting educational equity for all students regardless of gender and income,” said Josie Urbina, an OB/GYN family planning fellow at UC San Francisco.

Not having access to contraception on campus means students may have to get care elsewhere, which is disruptive to coursework, Urbina said. Many doctor’s offices aren’t open on the weekends, she noted, and some health systems require an in-person visit to get prescription birth control products.

USciences students seeking birth control could theoretically visit Planned Parenthood, said PhD candidate Alison Yu.

But there are no Planned Parenthood locations in West Philadelphia, she said, plus students might have to deal with protestors or people trying to direct women toward different centers, which Yu said she has often seen when she walks by the Center City outpost.

“Yes, there are some alternatives,” said Rhea Banerjee, a third-year biochemistry PhD candidate. “But there is no real, actual alternative to the health care that college campuses or student health facilities in colleges can provide for the students.”

King, the USciences clinical pharmacy professor, said there are numerous benefits to having easy access to contraceptives for people of all genders and sexual orientations.

“People who want to prevent pregnancy should have that option. Barrier methods are key to preventing STIs. People should have access to hormonal as well as non-hormonal contraceptives. Some people can’t tolerate one or the other and only have one option,” she said.

In Catholicism, any sex before marriage is considered to be wrong, and Catholic marriages are supposed to be open to creating new life, meaning that contraception — including condoms — is barred even within marriage. Use of birth control for “therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases” is allowed, according to a 1968 encyclical from Pope Paul VI, as long as the intention isn’t to prevent pregnancy.

Restricting access to birth control won’t stop students from having sex, King noted.

Aside from the health effects and financial burden of finding birth control elsewhere, this kind of policy can be stigmatizing for patients, and it’s an autonomy issue, she added.

“Telling a person that they can’t have easy and/or free access to pregnancy or STI prevention is basically saying that their opinions and needs don’t matter; they can’t make decisions about their own health care,” King said.

Not so easy to transfer

Several students told Billy Penn they were particularly frustrated by how and when the birth control policy change came to light.

USciences undergraduate Owen O’Reilly said he heard about the policy from a friend, then read The Inquirer article. He didn’t hear anything directly from the university until after that. “That really annoyed me,” he said.

“We’re only about a month away from this transition that they’re talking about,” said Banerjee, the biochem PhD candidate. “And [they] have only addressed it officially a month before they’re going to cut off birth control.”

That’s not to mention that students found out about the policy right around finals season, pharmaceutical chem student Herter noted, a generally stressful time.

Herter said she knows some people who’ve already transferred out, though she decided not to do so herself. A lot of the school’s programs have unique curricula and it can be hard to find an equivalent, students noted.

O’Reilly is generally unhappy with how the administrations from both universities have treated students throughout the merger process. He doesn’t like the opacity around changing policies.

The contraception policy on its own isn’t a “dealbreaker” he said, since he hasn’t personally used university sexual health services.

He enjoys the research he’s working on — one of the reasons he chose USciences is it offers research opportunities at the undergrad level — so he wants to stay. But he may reconsider, he said, if the administration continues to make decisions without considering student feedback first.

“It’s reasonable for a Christian university to have this policy, in the sense that they’re Christian, but they’re absorbing a science- and health care-based school,” O’Reilly said. “It goes against everything I’ve researched and read about.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...