Sexual Health Debate at Boston College Begs Questions of Reform

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It’s a bad week for Boston College to pick fights about sexual health.

But it creates a rallying cry for students, alumni and Catholics to push for reform, reality and relevance in University– and Church– policy.

Two cases before the Supreme Court determine the fate of marriage equality, and social media’s come alive with red and pink signs of support and photos of Anti-Prop 8 placards. Meanwhile, Boston.com reported yesterday Boston College administrators ordered Boston College Students for Sexual Health (BCSSH), an unrecognized student group, to cease distributing contraception and sexual health literature on campus, given its conflict with the school’s “responsibility to protect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.”

As an alumnus of the university, I found this a troubling action. The BC administration was decades behind students, faculty and alumni in recognizing LGBT rights. We are seeing a similar pattern in their behavior toward sexual health.

Timely for this week’s arrival of marriage equality and LGBT rights on the national consciousness, I urge you take a look at an old article in National Catholic Reporter from 2003 reporting on BC’s approval of a gay/straight alliance group. At that time, student government president Adam Baker told NCR, “The student body is very, very supportive of this effort [to create a gay/straight alliance]… One of the main things we did was collect signatures on a petition in support of the alliance… We collected more than 1,000 in a week.”

The administration did not share that sentiment. The NCR piece documents the path of BC’s on-campus LGBT alliance from staunch opposition and outright homophobia in the 1970s to tacit approval in the 1980s, and then to official recognition by the university – but with reservations. University spokesperson Jack Dunn, in a statement oddly similar to those made in the last few days regarding BCSSH, said, “[University President] Fr. Leahy’s goal is to be inclusive of all people, while at the same time remaining true to Boston College’s Catholic and Jesuit heritage.”

BC has fallen into the media morass on the biggest week for sexual liberation in the last decade. In the 24 hours since boston.com ran their article, the BCSSH story has been picked up in every local outlet (except Beantown, till now), ABC, CBS, USA Today, and then went international Wednesday afternoon with a post from the BBC.

BCSSH and its chairwoman Lizzie Jekanowski are riding the wave. Their story arises while the media’s trying to define the moral compass of a generation under thirty years old. Albeit a different, but related, issue to marriage equality, BCSSH’s stand for sexual health appears concerned, thoughtful and engaged with the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, the BC administration seems to cling to words that, despite their institutional, churchly weight, obscure rather than celebrate the school’s greatest attributes.

Boston College Sesquicentennial Mass at Fenway Park

Readers’ comments on yesterday’s boston.com story are, not unsurprisingly, dominated by readers opposed to BCSSH’s actions that seemingly oppose accepted policies of a Jesuit, Catholic institution. Lines are drawn in the sand, like u/Butterlyz‘s remark, “There is just Catholicism… Don’t believe in what the Church teaches? You’re not Catholic. That’s it.”

I argue that’s not the proverbial, “It.”

It’s too easy to throw up your hands and say, “It’s a Catholic school. There’s no chance they’d allow contraception on campus.” Or, similarly, “You don’t have to be Catholic to attend, but you have to abide by the rules.” I think fondly of my time at BC because of a tremendous peer group and the student body’s social conscience, instilled by the Jesuit “men and women for others” mantra. Yet these benefits seemed to come in spite of a school administration perennially trailing the needs of students and alumni for dialogue and action on race, class, and sexuality.

In 2011, BC student Erin Dromgoole cited a survey of BC’s student body on the subject of sexual health in her paper “Catholics and Condoms: Sexual Health Resources and Policies at Boston College,” published in Fresh Ink, a student research journal. Conducted in 2009 by the undergraduate student government, the survey found, “an overwhelming 89.47% of the student body agreed that Boston College needs to offer greater sexual health resources to its students, including but not limited to, access to condoms on campus, more affordable testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the availability of prescription birth control at health services on campus.” Dromgoole asserts the BC administration’s refusal to change policy is akin to an ostrich’s head in the sand. “Rather than acknowledge that the majority of their students, regardless of religious affiliation, are not adhering to traditional Catholic practices and beliefs, Boston College instead chooses to ignore the growing needs of its students, denying them on-campus services and resources that are essential to their health and well-being.”

Cathedral

The best thing I learned about the Catholic Church while a student at Boston College is that it’s far from unified; there are many debates about the Church’s political and dogmatic direction. BC itself takes a leading role as home of one of the top theology departments in the nation and host of the Church in the 21st Century Center, itself a “catalyst and resource for the renewal of the Catholic Church in the United States.”

A Jesuit professor once described these debates to my class as a tennis match, with the limits of orthodoxy marked as the side and end-lines. The ball can bounce many ways before it goes out-of-bounds. Contraception, and truly women’s health, are hot issues, but they are not outside these lines. In fact, the Church in the 21st Century Center hosted a panel discussion last February debating the Obama administration’s health insurance overhauls mandating Catholic institutions’ contraceptive coverage. M. Cathleen Kaveny, theologian and law professor at Notre Dame Law School remarked:

“There’s so much more to it,” she submitted. Pointing out that contraception is for most people a settled moral issue, Kaveny said, “What I would like us to be able to talk about is the conflict between two sets of rights,” between a religious institution’s right to distance itself from what it sees as an immoral practice and the right of individuals to adequate health care that includes contraception coverage.”

Boston College’s health insurance program and on-campus clinic may lay claim to the first right, but there is a preeminent duty to delivering adequate health care to the student body– one that largely identifies with something other than Catholicism; one that attended BC for its numerous attributes besides religious affiliation. One that we can assume is predominately young, reasonably sexually active, and is at particular risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Estimates suggest that even though young people represent only 25% of the sexually experienced population, nearly half of all STD cases occur in young people aged 15 to 24.”

Other Catholic institutions have found some middle ground. Loyola University of Chicago, like BC also Jesuit, offers free HIV and STI testing at the university’s Wellness Clinic. Villanova University, founded by Augustinians, makes a point to prefer abstinence as a sure method of preventing the spread of STIs, but notes sexually active partners should test first, then “barrier methods should be used…to ensure safety from an undetectable infection.” The Jesuit University of San Francisco has an online resource for information on students’ sexual health, including information on disease, sexual violence prevention and contraception. Note with all of these solutions, the emphasis is on disease rather than pregnancy prevention, allowing an institution to distance itself from what it sees as immoral practice, to borrow Kaveny’s phrasing.

BC is right to uphold its Jesuit, Catholic identity, but it is wrongheaded to hide behind these labels and erect limitations that are unrealistic, ignored and outright harmful to a diverse student body, alumni group and, increasingly, American Catholics at large.

There is much for which the BC community may be proud: a student body of great potential and diversity, a commitment to service, and a faculty and mission rooted in deep tradition. Being of that community, these are the qualities I wish would be highlighted in international news articles, rather than sneers and accusations of insensitivity or irrelevance.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of We Love Beantown.