When I went to college, I chose a highly regarded university with a strong tradition as a Jesuit institution. I was pleased with my undergraduate education at Boston College, but I still lament that my alma mater denies students access to contraceptive services through its health system.
As a private Catholic university, BC does not provide on-campus access to condoms, prescriptions for birth control pills to prevent pregnancy, emergency contraception (not even in cases of sexual assault) or affordable testing for sexually transmitted diseases. I saw the toll that this denial of medical services and information took on students' health first-hand -- and it left me disillusioned with the school I loved dearly.
Not having access to contraception on campus often means not having any birth control at all. While condoms may be readily available at the corner deli or drugstore, students need time and money to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care off campus.
A lot of BC students come from strict Catholic families where they can't be open with their parents about birth control needs. Campus services that include contraception would allow students to make choices about sex without having to discuss these private matters with their parents, on whom they may be financially dependent.
Of the female students I knew, many needed to use emergency contraception at least once during their time at BC, but it wasn't available on campus. With these measures time is of the essence, and finding a provider off-campus -- and the money to pay for the service -- often took too long. Some of these women were victims of sexual assault, making the need for this service even more crucial.
I also knew uninsured students who could not afford to continue paying for their own birth control so they stopped using it, putting themselves at risk. There are also many graduate and Ph.D. students at BC who are more likely to be beyond the age limits of their parent's insurance and more likely to be married or in long term relationships that require contraceptive needs.
Just after I graduated in 2008, a group of students formed BC Students for Sexual Health. They proposed a referendum asking the university to make contraceptive services available on campus. The group received support from 90 percent of the undergraduate student body and has continued its efforts since, but the university has not budged.
Recently, Catholic colleges have objected to a new federal requirement that all employers provide birth control coverage in their employees' health insurance plans. This new provision brings hope that insurance coverage for birth control may be extended to students at Catholic colleges and that BC may finally be obligated to do what the vast majority of its students has asked the school to do.
Opponents of the new requirement contend that it constitutes religious discrimination. In reality, opening up access to contraception at Catholic universities will help end discrimination. BC's non-discrimination clause states that they reserve their "lawful rights where appropriate to take actions designed to promote the Jesuit, Catholic principles." But federal and state laws do not allow Catholic institutions to discriminate on the basis of a person's religion.
It is a weak defense of these discriminatory policies to say that students and staff could have chosen to attend school or work elsewhere. Students and staff of all faiths, or no faith, may choose to attend or work at Catholic institutions. For those who are not strict practicing Catholics, their reasons may outweigh but by no means erase their sexual health needs.
We cannot forget, then, that there are students and staff members at these institutions who are not Catholic. For those who are sexually active and need these services, denying access imposes religious tenets upon them. The new federal requirement will no longer allow the invocation of "lawful rights" to promote Catholic doctrine to trump the right of access to health services such as provision of birth control for employees, and hopefully eventually students.
There are also many students and staff members at these institutions who are Catholic but use contraception. Research has shown that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women in the general population have used contraceptives. The age of first sexual activity in the U.S. is approximately 17 years old. This suggests that most college students are sexually active. The widespread student support for the BC sexual health referendum suggest that students want these services, even at a school that is 70 percent Catholic.
Denying access to birth control is also a form of sex discrimination. Since women are the primary users of birth control, this restriction disproportionately affects women over men. It is an infringement on women's equality that enforces an unfair financial burden, puts them at a greater risk of unintended pregnancy, and limits their agency when it comes to contraceptive choices.
Providing contraception on campus is not simply a matter of convenience but a step toward gender equality and the fulfillment of a basic health need.
I urge the Obama Administration to stay strong against this resistance and to extend the new federal provisions to students at Catholic institutes, and I urge my alma mater to support these changes to finally correct this longstanding injustice.