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In the past two weeks, Harvard students opened their mailboxes to find a blue “opt-out” card as part of the Abortion Opt-Out Campaign of Harvard Right to Life (HRL). The initiative allows students to request a refund of the part of their Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) health insurance plan that funds elective abortions—one dollar per term.
The Harvard Student Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) plan covers abortions, including elective abortions, for Harvard students with a $50 co-pay at Women’s Health Services or Planned Parenthood.
Harvard University Health Services (UHS) gave out 128 refunds in the 2006-2007 academic year for students who objected to their money funding elective abortions, according to Melanie Green, a spokesperson for UHS. That number should rise. Jeffrey Kwong ’08-’09, president of HRL, said that his organization has collected over 400 waivers from undergraduates throughout this year.
“We’re trying to allow students that have a moral objection to abortion to have the right to opt-out of paying for an elective abortion,” Kwong said.
Now students are debating whether their peers should have a right to opt out at all.
THE RIGHT TO REFUND
“I think it shows a basic naivety about the way insurance works,” said Leo P. Zimmermann ’09, who was a vocal opponent of the HRL campaign on Currier House’s open e-mail list.
For lots of students, the ability to obtain refunds from insurance due to moral convictions is troubling. Sean P. Mascali ’08, president of Students for Choice, said he thinks that students should not have this right.
“It’s dangerous and incredibly scary for special interests to dictate the health needs of the Harvard community,” Mascali said, “especially when those interests don’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the health concerns that students face.”
It sets a precedent for getting refunds for other health concerns that could be considered morally objectionable—such as birth control—and even the treatment of someone who suffers from alcohol poisoning, Mascali said.
This concern is shared by Eva Z. Lam ’10, the legislative director for the Harvard College Democrats.
“If I were to think that using contraceptives were immoral then by an extension of HRL’s logic I would have a right to request the portion that pays for birth control and condoms,” Lam said. “If I happen to think it’s immoral for the UC to fund the activities of HRL I could request a refund of the portion of my fee that goes to HRL.”
When asked whether UHS would consider refunding other parts of the insurance due to students’ moral convictions, Green said that UHS would evaluate such a request.
Yet Kwong said that abortion is a unique case.
“I can only think of abortion that fulfills that category,” he said.
Kwong said that the goal of HRL’s campaign is not to reduce the number of abortions.
“We’re not trying to stop UHS from doing abortions referrals,” Kwong said.
“We’re not in the business of restricting people’s health care and rights, but in the business of people having their rights respected.”
But Zimmermann said this circumvents the issue.
“It’s important to tie political action like that to consequences you think would be good,” he said.
“It generates the illusion of control,” he said, noting that since abortion services are not going to stop, the money will no doubt come out of some other part of the budget.
Only those students who pay for the BCBS plan are eligible for the refund.
“They do look to see if the student has purchased the Blue Cross and only provide the refund if somebody has purchased that,” Green said.
Although the majority of undergraduates and graduates use the BCBS plan, more than 5000 students enrolled in the University used other plans last year.
On its Web site, HRL suggests that all students pay for the elective abortions, but Green stressed that the payment comes from the BCBS insurance plan, not from the University’s student health service fee.
When asked if HRL will make the eligibility for the refund clear on the waiver, Kwong said only, “It’s up to the students to fill out the form.”
Kwong said the waiver was approved by UHS, but Green is asking member services to review all the information related to their policy.
The waiver also does not list the amount of the refund (one dollar per term).
“Students should not be filling out the waiver based on monetary issues,” Kwong said.
But that the nominal amount of the refund is not mentioned on the waiver has caused some students to consider signing the form in order to get money back for a service they don’t believe they’ll use.
THE TERMS OF THE DEBATE
HRL makes it clear that the campaign focuses on “elective” abortions.
“I think it’s a key distinction,” Kwong said. “Only non-medically necessary. A lot of people would say it’s okay when the mother’s life is in danger, but we’re not talking about that.”
Members of Students for Choice said that they are concerned with this focus and what would be considered an “elective” abortion.
Mascali said he personally knows a lot of people who have been hurt and frustrated by the campaign, especially in their target of “elective” abortions, which he feels only furthers the stigma against the practice.
“Calling it an elective abortion seems like carelessly ‘I’ll get an abortion today,’” Zimmermann said. “It suggests that people have abortions totally unrelated to health, but it is never not a medical decision.”
But disrespect for individual choice has been felt on the other side as well.
“I’m typically very impressed with the tolerance and respect with which opposing ideas are met on Harvard’s campus,” said Caleb L. Weatherl ’10, president of the Harvard Republican Club. “I must admit that I’ve been a little bit disappointed with the open list controversy, with the mockery and in some cases rudeness with which this opt-out option has been met.”
(Weatherl is also a member of The Crimson’s editorial board.)
A MATTER OF AUTONOMY
Students on both sides of the campaign have seen it as an affront to their autonomy.
“You don’t have to support abortion to not turn in your card, but you do have to recognize each female at this school as an autonomous being, who is capable, and deserves to make her own choice regarding her body,” wrote one student on Currier House’s open e-mail list.
Yet Kwong maintains that obtaining this refund is a right of Harvard students.
“If you don’t want to opt out, don’t opt out, that’s also your right” he said. “We’re not trying to trample on anyone’s rights.”
—Staff writer Rachel A. Stark can be reached at email@example.com.
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