Amid a debate about the role of Catholic colleges in a secular society, Loyola Marymount University this week decided to drop staff health insurance coverage for "elective" abortions and instead offer employees a separate, unsubsidized plan to cover those procedures.
The move was seen on campus as a compromise between traditionalist alumni and faculty — who think the university should have nothing to do with abortion — and a more liberal group who contend LMU should not impose religious doctrine on the large number of non-Catholics it enrolls and employs.
The Los Angeles university is reaffirming its "Catholic heritage and faithfulness to the Catholic Church's core teaching on dignity of every human being at all stages of life," President David W. Burcham and trustees Chairwoman Kathleen H. Aikenhead wrote in a letter to the campus. But, they added, the school also must uphold "diversity, academic freedom, unencumbered pursuit of truth and engaged debate on important contemporary issues."
As a result of the trustees' unanimous vote, LMU's principal health insurance next year will follow state law and cover contraception and "therapeutic abortions" — those deemed medically necessary by a doctor, according to university officials who declined to offer a more specific definition.
Many insurance policies pay for abortions needed to save the woman's life or preserve her health, as well as those arising from cases of rape and of fetuses with life-threatening abnormalities.
University employees will have to pay a slightly higher premium for an additional plan, managed by an outside party, that covers elective abortions, officials said. No school money will subsidize that extra coverage.
Jennifer Pate, an economics professor who is president of the university's faculty Senate, said that though the outcome left activists on both sides somewhat unhappy, "that's the trademark of a good compromise." Pate did not take a public stand on the matter because of her Senate position, but she said that most faculty wanted to keep full coverage and felt that a total ban would signal that the university "values diversity less than our Catholic affiliation."
About half of the university's 9,400 students, and many of its 2,000 staff and faculty members, are not Catholic, officials estimated.
Burcham is Presbyterian and the first layman to head the university, which has its main campus near Los Angeles International Airport and a law school in downtown. The president declined a request for comment, campus spokeswoman Celeste Durant said.
Father Robert Caro, a Jesuit who is the university's vice president for mission and ministry, described the debate over abortion insurance coverage as the most intense in his 38 years at the school. Now, he said, staff and faculty "look forward to getting back to business as usual."
Loyola Marymount long had wanted to drop direct connection to abortion coverage, but it was not until this year that insurance providers said it could be excluded, Caro said. The decision, he added, respects Catholic principles while providing "accommodation for those who don't believe in Catholic teaching."
Philosophy professor Christopher Kaczor, who wanted all abortion coverage dropped, said the trustees took a step in the right direction even if they were confused morally. He likened the trustees to someone who refuses to drive a pregnant woman to an abortion clinic "but will arrange for his brother to drive you there if you pay him a few bucks."
Yet Anna Muraco, an associate sociology professor, said she was unhappy with the decision because it stripped away a benefit and imposed an inequity on women in the workplace. The definition of "therapeutic" abortion also was a troubling issue, Muraco said, since it may be decided differently by various doctors and insurance administrators.