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Students sue University of Notre Dame for restricting access to some birth control

Natasha Reifenberg felt anger, frustration and confusion upon learning her access to contraceptives would be limited. The realization came in February, when the University of Notre Dame announced it would deny access to those contraceptives it says are “abortion-inducing.”

That’s why Reifenberg and three students sued the Catholic university Tuesday. The lawsuit alleges that the new policy is a violation of federal law and the First and Fifth amendments. The Indiana university said its decision was based on moral and religious convictions.

Notre Dame’s health-care plan will allow patrons to pay for contraceptives that do not “permanently change the human body to prevent pregnancy,” according to university spokesman Paul J. Browne. The institution will cover hormonal IUDs, “oral contraceptives, injectables, hormonal patches, and vaginal rings,” according to its website. Browne said the new rule will impact 8 percent of the undergraduates, approximately 60 percent of graduate students and employees and their dependents covered by the plan.

The policy change came four months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would rescind an Obama-era rule that required insurers to provide contraceptives to patrons at no cost. The mandate is still in effect, however, because of an injunction in two federal courts.

Second federal judge blocks Trump administration birth-control rules

But the 176-year-old institution is exempt because of an October agreement between the federal government and the university. The resolution awarded $3 million in fees and is a result of a 2013 lawsuit against the Obama administration over its compulsion to allow a third party to provide access to birth control to its insureds.

“[The university is] using backdoor deals to deny students the coverage they are entitled to by law and we are not going to stand for that,” Michelle Banker, a lawyer at the National Women’s Law Center, told The Washington Post by phone. “The Trump administration is trying very hard to chip away at the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control benefit.” The Washington-based law center, alongside Americans United for Separation of Church & State and the Center for Reproductive Rights, filed the suit on behalf of the students against the university and three federal agencies.

The policy will go into effect July 1 for employees and in August for students.

Reifenberg is one of those students. The 23-year-old spearheaded activism on campus through the student group Irish 4 Reproductive Health, whose formation came in the aftermath of the October HHS announcement. The group promotes “pro-sexual health education” and has in the past given condoms to students because they are not available on campus.

Reifenberg told The Post she is disappointed in Notre Dame administrators because the university has “failed to live up to its values of openness and transparency . . . and [provide] preferential options for the poor.” Reifenberg, who graduated in May and is on her parents’ Notre Dame insurance, said she is worried about obtaining an IUD before traveling to Chile in July on a Fulbright scholarship. She is the only student identified by name in the lawsuit. “I'm proud to stand up for something I believe in so prominently.”

The complaint also names the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury because of their roles in the settlement agreement. Those three agencies did not respond to email requests for comment.

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