A group of Democrats in Congress is calling on the Department of Education to clarify how Title IX protects pregnant college students from discrimination, including whether college students can be referred to law enforcement for seeking an abortion.
Title IX, the law that protects students from discrimination based on sex, requires all colleges that receive federal funding to provide specific accommodations for students who are pregnant or who are parents. This can range from any excused absence for doctor’s appointments to basic protections against discrimination. These protections have been codified in Title IX since 1975 and include language prohibiting discrimination for students receiving or recovering from abortions.
As some states across the country move to enact strict abortion bans, catalyzed by the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down federal abortion rights, many women’s rights advocates as well as Title IX experts are concerned about how these protections will work in the country. becomes more and more hostile to abortion.
The Biden administration’s new Title IX proposal that was released in June goes further to clarify the types of accommodations pregnant, parenting, or abortion-seeking students can request from their college, such as what constitutes a “pregnancy.” related-condition” of Title IX. However, after a 60-day public comment period, it could take up to a year for the proposed settlement to become law.
A coalition of 60 Democrats writes a letter to the department of education Thursday, asking the department to take steps to clarify specific protections for pregnant students under Title IX, including protections from disciplinary or legal action.
Representative Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, who led the effort, said she wants the department to clarify those protections “as soon as possible” in an interview with Inside higher education.
“This decision will reduce the ability of pregnant students to access safe and legal reproductive care and increase the burden on higher education institutions, many of which are woefully under-prepared to deal with a sharp increase in the number of pregnant students. and parental,” the letter reads. “Creating additional barriers for students to access reproductive care and, in fact, forcing many students to carry pregnancies to term, would likely prevent students from feeling safe on campus, hinder their ability to access equitable educational opportunities, and even would interfere with their completion and graduation plans.”
What Democrats Want
First, Democrats have called for the department to issue updated guidance so that if college students end up pregnant, they can be aware of these rights and that colleges have more clarity on how to handle related Title IX cases. to pregnancy. Specifically, they request updated guidance on Title IX rights for students seeking abortions, and that information about these rights be shared by department and Title IX administrators with students on campus, who are often unaware that the law provides such protections.
Although students can refer to their campus Title IX office for information about the protections available to them, the chilling effect of the recent Supreme Court ruling may prevent students from contacting the office to see what options available to them.
“I think it’s really important that administrators and policy makers at the federal level understand that there is an incredibly high level of fear right now and any guidance they may give on these points will have a very significant impact.” said Jessica Lee, director of the Pregnant Scholar Initiative, a project focused on raising awareness of the rights of pregnant students under Title IX.
She said that while pregnant students have always been protected by Title IX, “there hasn’t been much guidance or institutional knowledge to make that right a reality.”
Guidance from the Department of Education to clarify how Title IX regulations apply to specific situations related to pregnancy and abortion is important because “leaving it to each institution to figure out is a recipe for for a disaster,” Lee said.
Some colleges are legally permitted to ignore certain provisions of the Title IX law if they apply for a religious exemption, which must be granted by the Department of Education. Lawmakers are asking the department to contact colleges with religious exemptions and ask how they plan to provide Title IX housing for students who are pregnant or want abortions.
Lawmakers said they were concerned that students who are pregnant or who seek abortions are particularly at risk of being disciplined without increased supervision. “Disciplinary proceedings targeting only pregnant students may result in disparate outcomes for these students,” the letter states.
They asked the department to prohibit colleges from referring students to law enforcement or subjecting them to disciplinary action for obtaining an abortion.
They also asked the department to increase oversight of Title IX investigations that occur on college campuses for cases involving pregnant or parenting students to ensure colleges do not neglect their Title IX obligations. .
“While we recognize that the department may not have comprehensive data on pregnant and parenting students and students who have terminated their pregnancies, we are confident that expanding direct outreach to all students will build capacity of the department to effectively conduct oversight and investigate perceived Title IX violations against students who are pregnant or have terminated their pregnancies,” the letter reads.
They called for surveillance to be especially increased in states that have enacted abortion bans, where the environment for pregnant college students could be increasingly hostile.
Finally, lawmakers asked the department to clarify how the recent Supreme Court ruling will interact with other laws that protect student privacy and information. Specifically, they request that the department work alongside the Department of Health and Human Services to clarify laws that protect student health information from publication, including the Education Rights Act and the Family Privacy (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Lawmakers want to make sure colleges are prohibited from sharing information with law enforcement or state governments about students who might share with health service centers, faculty advisors, or college counselors. campus that they are considering having an abortion.
“We want students [to know] if they have a conversation about abortion or reproductive care, if they go to the campus health center, that these conversations are private and will not be used for disciplinary or legal action,” said Bonamici. “We want students to be able to discuss their health without fear.”
Although lawmakers are asking for immediate action from the ministry, it is not certain that they will get what they are asking for and may have to wait for the ministry to issue further guidance in the revised version of the proposed regulations.
“I think we all expect that, based on the timing of the proposed regulations and the Dobbs decision, the Department of Education will likely come up with a revision to the proposed rule with more information about the discontinuation of pregnancy,” said Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators. “If the department wanted to kind of signal their future direction, they could issue directions, and maybe they will, but if I had to bet, I’d say they’ll wait for the final settlement.”