For passing out condoms, students at Boston College could face disciplinary action. Earlier this month, university officials sent a letter to students who are part of a group called Safe Sites, which has 18 locations (almost all in student dorms) that provide free condoms, lubricants and pamphlets about sexual health.
Boston College has been aware of the Safe Sites program for two years, according to Lizzie Jekanowski, the chair of Boston College Students for Sexual Health (BCSSH) which runs Safe Sites. While the Safe Sites program has been in place for two years, BC only took action this month. In their letter, Dean of Students Paul Chebator and the Director of Residence Life, George Arey, told the students they could face disciplinary action as the Safe Sites program’s activities conflict with the “responsibility to protect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.”
BC spokesman, Jack Dunn, says that the students have “repeatedly failed to heed warnings about the condom giveaway as incongruent with the Jesuit Catholic values of Boston College.” Other Catholic universities, including the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University, have said that they too have policies that ban students from distributing condoms on campus and that students could face disciplinary action for doing so. Victor Nakas, a spokesperson for Catholic University of America, said simply to the Boston Globe that “one of the teachings of our faith is that contraception is morally unacceptable. Since condoms are a form of contraception, we do not permit their distribution on campus.”
The ACLU Steps In
The Massachusetts ACLU says that the threat of disciplinary action by BC is a potential infringement on the students’ civil rights. The ACLU may indeed take legal action: just because the school is a private institution does not give it the right to, in effect, do whatever it wants. In the Boston Globe, Sarah Wunsch, staff lawyer at the ACLU of Massachusetts, cites the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act of 1979, which does not allow private and public entities to interfere with an individual’s civil rights.
BC and other Catholic universities indeed note that the prohibition against students handing out condoms on campus is “not specifically outlined in a written policy.” But they claim that “student groups are well aware that they are prohibited from distributing birth control on campus” because such an activity runs “counter to Catholic beliefs.”
Boston College Putting Belief Over Civil Rights
The issue of access to contraception at Catholic institutions of higher learning arose last year after some schools spoke out against the health care law, under which most employers must cover contraceptives as part of their health plans. Catholic bishops and other Catholic officials sought to frame the birth control benefit as one of government infringing on their religious beliefs.
BC and other Catholic schools are trying to do the same about the distribution of condoms on campuses. The Boston Globe cites Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, who invokes the principles of Catholic doctrine, specifically Pope John Paul II’s 1990 Ex Corde Ecclesiae and a “U.S.-specific interpretation of that document” that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued in 2001.
What the condom distribution dispute really illustrates is how “official doctrine” can say one thing but people, including Catholics — in full awareness of their civil rights — do what they do. National surveys indicate that most Catholics consider the use of contraception to be “morally acceptable.” In fact, as Bridgette Dunlap has written on RH Reality Check, Catholic universities were for contraception before they opposed it:
From 1963 to 1967 Notre Dame held an annual “Conference on Population.” The conference, organized with the help of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was intended from its inception to be a forum to develop a more liberal Catholic position on contraception. In 1965, thirty-seven scholars who attended the conference sent a statement to the Pope that declared “[t]here is dependable evidence that contraception is not intrinsically immoral, and that therefore there are certain circumstances in which it may be permitted or indeed even recommended.”
Dunlap points out that no one less than Notre Dame’s President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, later requested that his friend, John D. Rockefeller, hold “a secret meeting with the Pope to discuss the problem of overpopulation.”
As Jekanowski puts it, plain and simple, “People are having sex on campus both at BC and at other Catholic schools. Catholics and non-Catholics alike need access to this information to make the best decisions for their health.”
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