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Perspective: A campus away, my rights would not exist

Updated: April 1, 2024, at 2:01 p.m.

As a woman, in 2024, I am not safe and neither are my rights.

I say this not to be pessimistic, grim or even alarmist. I simply say this as a young woman who sat in utter silence with a group of other young women when the Supreme Court overturned 50 years’ worth of precedent that protected our right to abortion.

When I focus on GW’s liberal campus atmosphere, my friendships with people who are pro-abortion rights and the legality of contraceptives both in D.C. and in my home state of Pennsylvania, I can almost forget the sick and twisted 21st-century dystopia I live in.

Then I interviewed Gabriella Shirtcliff for an assignment in my journalism class. Now I can’t forget anymore.

Shirtcliff is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame and one of the directors of distribution for Irish 4 Reproductive Health. She openly supports abortion rights and advocates for women’s healthcare on a conservative, anti-abortion-leaning campus. Like me, Shirtcliff comes from a fairly liberal town. But while she attends a Catholic university in Indiana, I chose a progressive and secular university in the nation’s capital.

Let me put things into perspective.

GW’s Student Health Center offers contraceptive counseling and prescriptions as well as emergency contraceptives at no extra cost through GW’s health insurance. On its website about sexual health resources, Notre Dame’s University Health Services calls for its unmarried students to practice abstinence. Notre Dame’s health services will not compromise “what the Church upholds in its teachings concerning sexuality and sex.” Shirtcliff told me that Notre Dame does not provide condoms to students, nor will its staff prescribe birth control to those specifically asking to use it as contraception.

The differences don’t stop there. GW has Plan B vending machines around campus, with subsidized prices to make contraceptives more affordable to students. The Division for Student Affairs also advertises free STI testing and condoms on campus. The DSA gets even more sex positive about masturbation, offering educational resources and promoting consent, communication and pleasure.

By contrast, Shirtcliff told me if she puts a sign up on her dorm room door that advertises free contraceptives and I4HR as a resource for learning and respecting reproductive health, they are taken down — again and again and again.

Shirtcliff said that an in-residence hall priest publicly scolded her for announcing at a community forum that she could provide free condoms and emergency contraceptives. Students are allowed to make any type of announcement at these meetings, yet she was chastised and shut down for trying to promote reproductive health.

She told me the only way to cope with the neglect of women’s reproductive health on campuses like Notre Dame’s was to laugh and keep marching forward. On the call, I laughed along with her.

I called my mom after I finished the interview with Shirtcliff. The first words I said were, “What the f*ck.” I was not laughing anymore.

It felt dystopian to hear about a school within the same country with such a different level of respect for sexual health and reproductive rights. I4HR does not even operate as a Notre Dame-affiliated club because school officials would likely suppress any club meetings, events and contraceptive distribution that it viewed as out of line with its philosophy on sexual activity.

Notre Dame’s Right to Life group claims to be the largest anti-abortion student organization in the country with more than 700 members, yet GW does not have a specifically anti-abortion organization listed as a club. I am not being impudent when I say thank God that GW Reproductive Autonomy and Gender Equity is alive and thriving with almost 400 members on our campus.

My reproductive rights are not invariably safe on any college campus or even in this country at large. Every time I cross a state boundary line, I have to check and see if I’m in a state that is more interested in “protecting” my womb than treating me as a woman who can make the best decisions for her own body.

But my reproductive rights are safe on this campus, for now. That means something.

It might even mean everything.

Paige Baratta, a sophomore majoring in political science, is the editorials assistant.

This post has been updated to correct the following:

A prior version of this article misspelled the name of Gabriella Shirtcliff. We regret this error.

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