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How Catholic Universities' Contraceptive Ban Fails Our Students

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This summer, Xavier University -- one of the oldest Roman Catholic schools in the United States -- will stop providing contraceptive coverage to its employees. Many Catholic colleges already decline to prescribe or cover birth control to their employees and students, though this may change in the wake of the Obama administration mandate to require such coverage under the health reform law. As a professor at a Catholic university, a woman brought up in a Catholic family, and a patient whose doctors ordered me not to become pregnant while undergoing treatment for cancer, I think Xavier is making a mistake.

What's at stake here is not just contraceptive coverage but the value that Catholic institutions place on women's lives. My experiences, and those of my students, make clear that contraception bans will have far-reaching and damaging implications for female students. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' objection to contraceptive coverage (and Xavier's decision to follow suit) suggest a staggering disregard for young women's everyday lived reality, and their futures.

A few weeks into my first semester of teaching, a female student approached me with a doctor's note explaining an absence. I glanced at it and casually observed that it didn't list the doctor's phone number. After class, the student came to my office to offer a tearful apology. She had lied; the note was a fake. She had gone to Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test and feared the consequences if she had told me the true reason for her absence.

That was 17 years ago. Since then, I have never again asked a student for a doctor's note. I also refuse to separate reproductive health care from my concern for our students' health and wellbeing. Here's why: Access to contraception does not cause students to have sex. A sexually active heterosexual young woman who does not practice contraception, however, does have a 90 percent chance of becoming pregnant within a year. Banning contraceptive coverage will do nothing to alter young women's needs for contraception. It will just make it harder to access and present one more hurdle to overcome in their pursuit of an education.

Students already face daunting economic hurdles in the form of rising tuition costs, staggering student loan debts and their limited earning potential. As two major studies have found, the main reason students drop out of college is because they need money to survive. According to the USDA, rearing a child costs around $10,000 in the first year alone. Residence halls are not designed to accommodate pregnant and parenting students; undergraduate students who have a child typically live off campus. Some suspend their education, while others drop out of school entirely, buckling under the strain of attempting to study, work and care for a child. One study found that nearly two thirds of women who have children after enrolling in community college fail to finish their degree.

To be sure, families are often a reliable source of practical and emotional support, as well as health insurance. But not every sexually active or pregnant student can count on her parents. Too often, families are the site of rejection, conflict and even violence, particularly around issues of sex and sexuality. A freshman confided her guilt about leaving home to attend college because it left her younger sister vulnerable to a stepfather's sexual predations. More than one gay or transgendered student has described being cut off after coming out to their parents. One student's relationship with her father was damaged by his incorrect assumption that her persistent gynecological problems stemmed from sexual activity.

With or without support from home, many students will seek out the contraception they need. Still, the ban contributes to a climate of shame and stigma surrounding sexuality that -- as we learned from victims of the widespread priest sex abuse scandal -- can be incredibly harmful. Fear of disclosure and shame, in turn, can lead to difficulty finding information and services, and the avoidance of needed health care and support. If universities are to succeed in the mission of educating and graduating the students they admit, they must fill in the gaps in care left unmet by dysfunctional or struggling families, not deny that such dysfunction exists. To do otherwise is to fail our students.

The principle of cura personalis (or "care for the whole person"), central to the mission of Catholic schools, does not come with a qualifier that says "unless you are sexually active" or "except if you are a woman." While Catholic social teachings communicate powerful and uplifting messages about the dignity of the human person, the contraceptive coverage ban (not to mention the Vatican's recent rebuke of the American Catholic nuns for not promoting the "Church's biblical view of family life and human sexuality") shouts volumes about women's second-class status in the Catholic Church. This disrespect for the women who are here -- in our midst, on our campuses -- being shown by a powerful minority of conservative Catholics in favor of purported concern for the unborn must be called out for what it is: profoundly unchristian.