Santa Clara University saw a quiet protest Wednesday as some faculty members stood with signs objecting to the school's decision to end employee health insurance coverage of elective abortions.

The decision last week, coupled with a similar one last week at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles -- both Jesuit Catholic institutions -- came out of a concern for their religious identity, school leaders said.

Catholic institutions are revisiting the issue after U.S. bishops' recent battle to keep them from having to cover birth control and sterilization under the new national health insurance law. And some of their faculties reacted angrily.

Saint Mary’s College in Moraga
Saint Mary's College in Moraga

At a Santa Clara University forum Wednesday, faculty and staffers carried protest signs outside a forum on the topic. Much of their ire was focused on what some said was a unilateral decision.

"Engh: SCU President or SCU Dictator?" read the sign anthropology professor Mary Hegland carried as some 90 people attended the meeting. SCU President Michael Engh made the decision to change abortion coverage.

The forum was a sham, said English Professor Michelle Burnham. She said she disagreed with the insurance coverage decision and questioned the worth of the forum. "There's no indication to us that he's interested in hearing a truly open discussion."


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The sudden squall reflects the contradictions of a deeply conservative faith roiled by a secular modernity. Just last month Pope Francis criticized the Catholic Church's obsession with "small-minded rules" and called on pastors to embrace compassion over condemnation on issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality. The next day, he denounced abortion as a product of "throwaway culture" and urged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform it.

Engh placed his decision within Church doctrine."Our core commitments as a Catholic university are incompatible with the inclusion of elective abortion coverage in the University's health plans," he wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to 1,600 employees. Dropping elective abortion is unavoidable, he said.

By Wednesday afternoon, some 500 ¿employees had signed an online petition asking to appeal the decision.

As news of Engh's letter broke, Loyola Marymount University's trustees voted to end coverage of elective abortions.

Inspired by those decisions, Saint Mary's College in Moraga is reconsidering its health benefits which include "services that some employees choose not to utilize because they are not consistent with their own Catholic values," the school said in a statement released last week. People have a right to make choices, and decisions such as abortion should be "between the individual and their higher power," said Raina Leon, a Catholic Saint Mary's education professor. "Whether the university should support that choice in contrast to a particular mission, I don't know."

Notre Dame de Namur University, a Catholic school in Belmont, and Dominican University of California, a San Rafael school that describes itself as "of Catholic heritage," both said their employee insurance covers elective abortions.

Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara said that insurers for years maintained that elective abortions could not be separated from medically necessary abortion, long mandated by state laws.

But last month, an insurer told Santa Clara it could separate the two procedures, said Kirk Hanson, a spokesman for Engh on this issue.

Kaiser Permanente Northern California confirmed that separate coverage and billing was now possible. The insurer changed its policy at the request of some employer groups, said Kaiser spokesman Marc Brown.

Anthem Blue Cross also changed its policy, but did not respond to inquiries for this article. State law and policies have not changed, according to the state Departments of Insurance and Managed Care.

The nation's new health insurance law requires employer-sponsored health plans to cover contraception and sterilization, but not abortion. It exempts churches, and U.S. bishops had sought to also exempt religiously affiliated universities, hospitals and other nonprofit institutions. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ruled in June that women at such institutions must have contraception available through separate health policies.

"Generally in Catholic higher education there's a swing toward strengthening Catholic identity," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a Virginia-based conservative nonprofit. And on abortion, he said, "Catholic doctrine is quite clear."

But the larger trend involves Catholic colleges with diverse student bodies and faculties struggling to balance their religious identity, said John Gehring at Faith in Public Life, a social justice group in Washington.

"It's also complicated by the fact that most Catholics use contraception and consider access to reproductive health something that should not be denied."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.