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Legs Crossed & Hands Tied: Birth Control and Catholic Education

*-All names in the following article have been changed to protect students.

I spent my childhood in pleated skirts and knee socks, attending mass on every Holy Day of Obligation, and studying for catechism class. My mother pointed to the Virgin Mary as the perfect example of a woman for my sisters and I to follow. She adheres to the official view of the Catholic church: that sexuality is to be saved for marriage. So when I experienced a pregnancy scare, it was more like a pregnancy terror.

Though my mother only discussed sex with me once when I was thirteen (“Do you know how you can get pregnant? Don’t do that.”), I was convinced she would disown me if I was found to be pregnant. I realized that the responsible thing to do once sexually active was to start birth control, but the idea of claiming contraceptives on my parents’ insurance was as unthinkable, for me, as conceiving a baby.

A papal encyclical titled “Humanae Vitae (On Human Life)” condemned the use of artificial birth control, including but not limited to sterilizations, the pill, and condoms. They describe the use of birth control as “gravely sinful.” A highly disputed statistic reported by the Guttmacher Institute, however, claims that 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives.

The ban on birth control spread from the highest circles of Catholic governance down to Catholic families and institutions, like hospitals and universities. In addition to causing this summer’s controversies regarding federal health care reform, the Church’s stance on sexuality also limits the provision’s of Saint Peter’s University’s own health staff.

Marie Lesniak*, a junior at Saint Peter’s and a practicing Catholic, shares her opinion by saying, “It’s not appropriate for a Catholic university to provide birth control. This has been a big issue for the entire church and those authorities; Catholic schools don’t have to go against the church. It’s in the namesake.”

A Planned Parenthood clinic.

A Planned Parenthood clinic.

Though nurses, a doctor, and a clinic are all available on campus, their hands are tied by the Church. They can’t distribute condoms, which prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.They can’t test students for pregnancy or STDs. They can’t, officially, discuss birth control. They provide a list, both online and mailed to students, of what to bring to a campus residence, and nowhere does it mention condoms or the pill. All they can do is refer students to an outside gynecological practice, where school insurance is accepted.
For contrast, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, a state school with no religious affiliation, provides condoms, birth control pills, lubricants, and emergency contraception for purchase. They also provide STI testing and screenings for hormonal birth control.

Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati, Ohio, provides resources for pregnant students and STI testing, but not birth control. Seton Hall University in South Orange, Catholic but not Jesuit, also provides STI testing. Saint Peter’s health services can only offer information on STD awareness.

A 2006 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health on the efficacy of abstinence-only sex education showed that almost half of the STIs in the United States are contracted by people under 25, and over 800,000 adolescents become pregnant yearly. According to the American Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 35% of college women have contracted HPV, which could be prevented through the use of condoms. Not talking about sex is not effective preventing these undesirable consequences.

Though contraceptives and reproductive rights have been largely and loudly discussed in the public sphere, most women still need secrecy and anonymity when acquiring birth control. No statistics were available on the number of students at Saint Peter’s who are pregnant or have an STD.

On Planned Parenthood’s website, where I made my initial appointment to acquire birth control, they ask whether it’s safe to call, and if so, should they identify as “the doctor’s office,” or even “Cory,” to protect their patient’s privacy, should someone besides the patient pick up the phone. I was at once grateful for and stunned by the level of secrecy they provided. Signs in the waiting rooms of the clinic advise patients that “Unauthorized photography, video or audio recording is not permitted.”

While I was grateful for the lengths they go to protect their patients’ privacy because I feared my mother’s anger, some of Planned Parenthood’s clients face far more dire consequences. They may be forced to hide an abortion or the use of birth control from an abusive partner.

A student with birth control in their back pocket.

A student with birth control in their back pocket.

Planned Parenthood works to make reproductive health services, such as breast, cervical, and testicular cancer screenings, STD testing, provision of information on healthy relationships, and the provision of birth control and abortions available to everyone, including those without health insurance. Within the City of New York, most of their services are free to those in the lowest income brackets.

They are able to provide these through federal subsidies and private donations. The former are under fire from conservative political forces in the upcoming presidential election.

Alexandra Rodriguez-Nowarro, a practicing Catholic student who is, nonetheless, looking into birth control, said, “I don’t want someone who doesn’t know my body, situation, and circumstances to dictate what I can and can’t do for myself. If I wanted that, I’d tell my parents everything.”

Rodriguez-Nowarro, like many women, refer to this as the  “War on Women,” which began with criticisms of President Obama’s health care reform and included opposition from the American Council of Bishops on the required provision of birth control to female employees.

Nina Dinelli, a sophomore who is also a practicing Catholic, said, “Part of learning how to be prepared for the real world is learning how to be responsible for one’s health and well-being as well as being responsible for one’s actions.  That means if people are going to choose to be sexually active in college they are responsible for providing their own birth control so they can make sure they are being safe.  Some people would argue that birth control is too expensive for students so colleges should have it. I disagree.”

Mysha Smith, a student who identifies as agnostic, said, “I don’t think having birth control in school (I’m a resident) would be that much of a problem. It’s an all-women floor, so I assume people would have similar experiences and be willing to offer support.”

The practical upshot of all this ideology had me on the PATH train, heading to the Margaret Sanger Center on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. I had been to the Planned Parenthood clinic in my hometown for my first appointment, my hands sweating on the steering wheel of my mother’s borrowed car while I parked it as far from the street as possible to avoid notice. This time, I was much more confident, though I didn’t have to walk through a metal detector at the smaller clinic.

Inside I was greeted by the same pamphlets on sexual health featured in the Saint Peter’s nurse’s office, as well as by posters promoting safe sex and birth control (“We’ll be great parents someday, but until then, we use birth control”), and, most noticeably different, baskets of condoms for taking home.

As Lesniak told me, “I use condoms because they’re  more accessible, less expensive, don’t need perscription.” Though financial counselors at Planned Parenthood are able to waive the costs of birth control and the preliminary pregnancy test, patients still undergo a physical exam and need to be given a prescription before they can receive birth control.

The first thing measured was my income; as a full-time student and only part-time worker, I qualified to have the price waived. Next, they took my weight, blood pressure, and a urine sample. Finally, I was approved for a depo-provera injection, a form of hormonal birth control that is effective for three months.

This option is not for everyone.

Dinelli said, “I don’t use birth control in the form of a pill or an injection.  I don’t like the idea of chemically changing my body’s functions that way just so I don’t have to deal with a monthly gift or so I can fool around whenever I want.  Condoms are the only form of birth control I would ever consider.”

However, birth control is not only taken as contraception. According to the Institute of Medicine, hormonally-based birth control can be used to regulate the menstrual cycle, prevent migraines, acne, pelvic and breast diseases. And according to the Center for Disease Control, people aged 13 to 29 made up 39% of HIV infections, a spread which can be prevented by the use of condoms.

Additionally, birth control, whether hormonal or the rhythm method approved by the Catholic Church, is necessary for healthy mothers and babies. The Institute of Health also says that birth control is helpful in preventing unplanned pregnancies, of which 42% in 2008 ended in abortion.

Religious texts mixed in with sexual health magazines in the nurse's office at Saint Peter's University.

Religious texts mixed in with sexual health magazines in the nurse’s office at Saint Peter’s University.

I chose depo-provera because it’s easy to hide — no pill to take every day, no packaging to worry about my mother coming across. At home, I had the injection in my hip so that my pants would cover it. I’m not alone.

Rodriguez-Nowarro said, “I have to hide it from parents — I can’t talk to my mom about anything. She won’t even let me use tampons — that’d make me not a virgin any more.”

Lesniak agrees. “I do have to hide it from parents, but I’m not comfortable with anyone besides doctor and boyfriend knowing about my sexual activity.”

Patients at Planned Parenthood do fill out an extensive questionnaire on not only sexual activity, but also the health and strength of the relationship between sexual partners, whether a patient is in a monogamous relationship, what gender each partner is. Before giving me my injection, the nurse asked me, “Your partner — he treats you all right? No funny business?”

Despite the large number of patients at the clinic and the efficiency of the system, I felt cared for.

There is a large sense of solidarity as well as secrecy — not to mention, for me, the thrill of rebellion. I proudly took the shot in my arm, not hiding it from my mother or anyone, and even took a little pink pin home with me that reads: “Planning is power.”


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