SANTA CLARA -- A decision by Santa Clara University's president to drop health insurance coverage of elective abortions for the Catholic university's faculty and staff has triggered a serious rift at the school.

Many faculty members say they were blindsided by the move at an institution that has long prided itself on open communication and governing by consensus.

The thorny issue echoes a nationwide debate at Catholic universities over their institutional identities and ability to consider the convictions of those who do not identify with -- or who disagree with -- certain principles the Catholic tradition holds as central.

The uproar at SCU comes on the heels of a contentious vote this week by trustees of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, another Jesuit school that decided not to provide coverage for elective abortions. And, ironically, the controversy came to a boil on the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, went off in a different direction by signing two bills aimed at increasing access to abortion in California.

"This really makes Santa Clara University's express commitment to openness, diversity and inclusiveness ring hollow," said history professor Nancy Unger, who is Catholic.

University President Michael Engh, a Jesuit priest, said in a two-page letter dated last Thursday and sent to 1,600 employees that the university carefully studied how the school can structure its medical insurance plans in 2014 to be compliant with federal and California laws and regulations while representing its values as a Jesuit university. The university concluded that "our core commitments as a Catholic university are incompatible with the inclusion of elective abortion coverage in the University's health plans," he stated in the letter.

Asked to respond to the uproar among faculty, the president's office on Wednesday issued a statement that simply rephrased parts of the letter.

Unger said that the university prides itself on "shared governance" and that Engh's action is an egregious violation to that commitment because he did not alert faculty and staff that he was even considering the issue.

"This is not the Santa Clara University that I have loved and been proud to serve," Unger said.

In the letter, Engh said a series of open forums to discuss the issue will be announced next week and will be coordinated by the executive directors of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Women's and Gender Studies Department.

Still, some faculty wondered why the discussion couldn't have been held before Engh made the decision.

Mary Hegland, a SCU professor of anthropology, said she doesn't "love abortion," but that "the male Jesuits running Santa Clara University feel they know what God wants regarding women, women's bodies and women's reproduction. ... We have many women working at SCU who are not Catholic or -- even if Catholic -- do not believe that abortion is against God's will. If the SCU male Jesuit administration really felt 'sensitivity towards women' (as Engh cited in the letter), they would not have made this decision."

Santa Clara University seal.
Santa Clara University seal. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

But professor John Hawley, chairman of the English Department, said on the one hand the university "presents and studies all sorts of ideas, not just those of the Roman Catholic Church." But on some ethical issues, he said, "it needs to take a particular stand lest it be seen as anti-Catholic. And this is one of them."

Officials at other Bay Area Catholic colleges -- Holy Names University, the University of San Francisco, Notre Dame de Namur University and St. Mary's College -- did not respond Wednesday to inquiries about whether their employee health plans next year will cover elective abortions.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as "Obamacare," all health plans require employers to cover reproductive health services such as contraception and sterilization, but not abortion.

California law requires employers to cover reproductive health services and also requires "therapeutic abortions" when the health of the mother is at stake. But state law does not require employers to cover elective abortions.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brown on Wednesday signed AB 154 by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, which would let nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physician assistants with special training perform the most common kind of first-trimester abortion. He also signed another bill that requires the repeal of any California building codes that treat primary-care clinics differently if they do abortions.

"California is moving in a different direction than the rest of the country. So far this year we have seen 68 abortion restrictions become law, and California is the only state to make real progress to protect abortion rights," said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights research group.

"This is just a common sense measure," she said of AB 154. "The state recognizes that abortion is not always available when needed and that advanced practice clinicians are well-placed to provide those services."

But Brian Johnston, executive director of the California ProLife Council, said the bill "isn't about helping women so much as about promoting abortion." He said the reason the Legislature had to pass such a law was that enough "honest doctors have read the Hippocratic oath."

"What this is doing is creating a whole new pool of abortionists. It's surgery by people who are not surgeons," said Johnson, who is also the National Right to Life Committee's Western director.

Restrictions enacted by other states this year include tighter clinic regulations, requiring abortion providers to have hospital privileges nearby and banning abortions after certain points in a pregnancy. Besides California, only New York and Washington state have moved to expand abortion access in 2013 -- and in both those states, the bills fizzled out amid Republican opposition.

The only other state to let nonphysicians perform aspiration abortions is New York. Several states, however, allow nonphysicians to provide medication abortions.

Staff writer Katy Murphy contributed to this report. Contact Tracy Seipel at tseipel@mercurynews.com. Contact Josh Richman at jrichman@bayareanewsgroup.com.