Columbia University policy allows for secret abortions for minors at the University’s expense. Illegal? No, not in New York State. Questionable ethics? Many would say so.
Of course, Columbia’s stance on abortion is anything but “hidden.” In fact, the opposite holds true. Health Services’ yearly informational packet, its Web site, and its on-campus events, like last year’s “Speak Out: I Had an Abortion,” would all suggest a strong commitment to raising policy awareness. On Columbia’s own “Ask Alice” Web site, administrators responded to an anonymous student post with all relevant information:
“Students needing abortion services who prefer not to activate their private insurance for confidentiality reasons can utilize a benefit of the Health Services program, paid for by your Health Services Fee, which includes coverage up to a maximum of $500.00. This amount is based on the average rate.”
To simplify the bureaucratic jargon, the administrators essentially affirm that students may forgo the use of their private insurance plans to pay for their abortions, ensuring that their guardians will remain unaware. Instead, the $500 contribution toward the abortion will come from their Health Services Fee, a per semester payment of some $350. This math, however, does not add up. The remaining $150 or so must come from somewhere else. Whether Columbia draws these funds directly from other students or just adds to the health system’s financial burden and takes from its coffers, there is an undeniable cost to be paid. Either way, the onus falls upon students and donors alike.
With such a policy, several fundamental concerns arise. First, and perhaps most importantly, Columbia has the leeway to apply these parameters to students who are below the legal age of consent, i.e. minors. Again, I turn to the administration’s “Ask Alice” for confirmation. “Frosh,” an anonymous student, asks, “I am a Columbia freshman and I need to get an abortion. The problem is, I’m 17. Can I legally [get an abortion] in NY without parental notification? Money is not a major prohibitory issue here.” Alice responds in kind: “Dear Frosh, Yes, in New York State, a woman of any age can get medical services, including an abortion, without parental notification. … Take a look at ‘What about abortion? Where? How?’ to learn more.'” The referenced article, of course, is the one cited earlier in this column.
The moral dilemma is clear. Under the auspices of “confidentiality,” Columbia University may be considered complicit in using University funds (where a private individual or insurance agency could assume all costs) to assist a minor’s deception of her legal guardians. Considering that a 17-year-old requires her guardians to sign off on her acceptance to the University, Columbia’s selective policy appears little more than hypocritical. For what other elective surgical procedure would the University allow a student below the age of consent to eliminate parental input altogether?
Furthermore, Columbia’s treatment of the “Health Services Fee” and its uses creates an undeniable double standard. According to the Health Services home page, even after the initial Health Services Fee, students must pay for “immunizations and travel assessments.” While a student could conceivably have multiple $500 “selective terminations,” the student body at large must pay upwards of $80 for, among others, hepatitis shots, and $20 for the flu or tetanus shots, which are “generally not covered by medical insurance benefits.” Ironically, on a campus that champions financial aid reform and socioeconomic justice, students have no choice but to pay out of their pockets for the preventative measures that would keep them both safe and healthy. Abortions, however, fall under the University prerogative.
Temporarily abandoning my on-campus focus, we must consider Columbia’s policy in relation to both New York State and federal law. Within the past few years, several pieces of parental consent legislation have made tenable progress through the U.S. Congress and the New York State Assembly, respectively. If legislators enact such laws, what position would Columbia take? Would it resist the laws and follow its own policies, regarding them as essential to the health and safety of its student body? Could it be that the many dedicated pro-choice ideologues would simply relent? Would students witness the augmentation of University policy to include transportation costs to neighboring states where parental consent is not required? Would the University advance a legal challenge? Undeniably, these are all valid questions.
While this is not the place to address the complex national abortion issue, Columbia’s policies are fair game. As President Bollinger prepares to launch the largest fund-raising initiative in the University’s history, students, parents and alumni alike have the collective right-even obligation-to know how Columbia spends its money. As a private institution, Columbia is free to institute any legal measure it sees fit, but for legitimate policy change to become a reality, the Columbia community must speak out.
Chris Kulawik is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science. This article originally appeared in The Columbia Spectator as an installment in Kulawik’s column, ‘Chris Shrugged,’ which runs on alternate Wednesdays.