Can Catholic Colleges Block Free Condom Distribution?

6980584656_478d76d430The Affordable Care Act requires that birth control be made available through health plans, in some cases without co-pays or deductibles. That’s prompted religious institutions to object to paying for care that’s not consistent with their values. But Boston College’s recent steps to stop free condom distribution doesn’t involve sponsoring birth control—it involves location. Boston College Students for Sexual Health, an unofficial campus group formed in 2009, gives away condoms on a sidewalk next to campus and from about 15 dorm rooms, which the group calls “safe sites.”

Until recently, Boston College, a private Jesuit institution, appeared to have taken an approach common among Catholic colleges: tolerating condom distribution by its students as long as it was done offsite, but officially banning the activity on its property. There is some dispute about whether the college previously asked the student groups to stop the on-campus distribution program; however, it recently informed students that any reports that they were distributing condoms on campus would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action. At issue is whether public health policy should protect such actions by students, or whether Boston College and other private universities can ban condom distribution on their property on religious grounds.

If this issue were to be decided on the basis of public health benefits, the outcome would be clear: Condoms indisputably prevent both unintended pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Although abstinence is the only way to completely prevent pregnancy and STIs, it works only when practiced without exception. Students who have chosen sexual activity over abstinence could benefit from accessible distribution sites—and the numbers indicate that most do choose sex over abstinence. On the spring 2012 American College Association National College Health Assessment[PDF], 69.6 percent of college students reported having one or more sexual partners in the previous 12 months, and 27 percent reported having two or more.

Decades of research demonstrate that condoms do not cause individuals to have sex but do reduce rates of STIs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Moreover, a lack of available birth control has not been shown to be effective in either causing abstinence or preventing pregnancy and STIs. While a lack of access to condoms might lead students to employ other approaches to reduce the risk of pregnancy, condoms remain the best available option to prevent STIs outside of abstinence. Free distribution is particularly effective because cost has been shown to be a barrier to condom use, particularly among younger males. Consequently, publicly supported condom distribution programs have been both cost-effective and cost-saving.

A recent Guttmacher Institute report [PDF]noted that unplanned pregnancies interfere with the ability of young women to graduate from college. They also increase the odds that a relationship will fail. And,

People are relatively less likely to be prepared for parenthood and develop positive parent-child relationships if they become parents as teenagers or have an unplanned birth.

Condom distribution programs have been shown to be highly effective not only in increasing condom use among sexually active populations, but also in promoting delayed sexual initiation and abstinence among youth. So both students and their future sexual partners stand to benefit from the free distribution of condoms. Clearly, condoms are critical to student health—especially women’s health.

To be sure, Boston College’s administration does not approach the issue wholly on the basis of public health considerations. The Catholic Church sets narrow limits on the use of condoms—to protect human life and reduce the transmission of HIV. But given the clear public health benefits of condoms, it does make sense to seek a path that honors the right of religious institutions to set limits consistent with their moral principles while also providing access to free condoms for those students who choose to use them.

Massachusetts public health officials, legislators and the general public will have to weigh the merits of allowing religious institutions to ban the free distribution of condoms. If they decide to respect and allow such bans, then perhaps they should consider joining Washington, D.C., and New York State in establishing condom distribution programs for all residents.

Chloe Bird is a senior sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Photo from Flickr user Hey Paul Studios under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. R. J. H. says:

    Cloe, the author, is from RAND Corporation? Interesting. To answer Cloe’s rhetorical and pen-ultimate paragraphical question, Massachusetts public health officials, legislators, and the general pubic do not have to weigh the merits of allowing religious institutions to ban the free distribution of condoms, because this type of civil rights issue has been settled in Massachusetts already. The Massachusetts Civil Rights Act of 1979 prohibits interference with civil rights by private as well as public entities. Further, in the 1980s, Boston University lost a court case against students when attempting to force them to remove antiapartheid poster from their dorm windows. The judge ruled that the state Civil Rights Act protects the free speech rights of the students, even when they attend a private school. If Boston College isn’t into civil rights, perhaps we can interest the Catholic Church into moving it to a country with less civil rights. The same countries also shelter pedophile priests. One such country, Vatican City, has a seat at the United Nations under the name “Holy See.” Maybe Boston College can move to Vatican City. Why the United Nations considers Vatican City a country is beyond me anyway. It doesn’t have a sustainable population like a true country. Catholics who live there are either in the Pope’s service; or, pedophile priests being sheltered from prosecution by their victims in other countries. Look up “Vatican City Explained” on YouTube. Here’s a link.:

  2. Nancy Brown says:

    An excellent article! How much control should a college be allowed to have over its students? Should a Catholic College be allowed to insist that all students subscribe to all of the tenets of the Catholic Church? Bird presents quite clearly the advantages of birth control availability for the health of the people involved and for society in general. Should these advantages be more made more difficult for students at Catholic colleges when those students clearly do not choose to follow all of the rules set out by the Catholic Church? For those who do choose to be faithful Catholics, this condom giveaway is irrelevant, since they would not be engaging in sexual activity unless they are planning to conceive a child.

  3. I can understand a Catholic college banning condom distribution by students on its own property. It should have no say at all in a student’s choosing to distribute condoms when she/he is off campus. This is one of the many reasons why I left the Catholic Church over 20 years ago; this backward belief that women should never be allowed to use contraception. I don’t believe any woman should have to consult with a religious cleric to make such personal decisions about her own body, as it’s none of any church’s business whether a woman chooses to have children or not.

  4. William L. Turner says:

    I am a men’s rights activist and usually disagree on most points. But in my daily troll of feminist blogs, I have to say I agree with the feminists on this one. I am a Canadian lawyer and my knowledge of US law is limited. But from a Canadian stand-point, which is far more generous to Catholic schools given their constitutionally entreched protection, this cannot stand. I am assuming there is a US law allowing these institutions to operate. But even under such protection, it does not allow them to discriminate in every aspect of their operation. For instance, while they may very well refuse to allow courses which accept marriage equality, they can’t refuse benefits to the same-sex spouse of a campus security guard. Likewise, the health and private decisions of students and faculty should remain their choice alone. While having a faith-based “code of conduct” is justified as even such secular equavalents exist in normal institutions, they can only be used to protect the fundamental interests of the school. A good example would be prohibiting students at faith based schools from participating in extremeist religious activities or spewing intolerance as this would tarnish the good repute of the faith. If I were the Dean, I would be a little concerned if a pack of my students were seen part-taking in activities with the Westboro Baptist Church!

  5. This is neither a men’s rights issue nor a women’s rights issue; it’s a human rights issue, because both genders are at risk for AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Of course, women are disproportionately affected by restrictions on access to birth control because they alone become pregnant, but the common sense approach of allowing women and men to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy and infection by whatever means they choose is obscured by the Bronze Age mentality that refuses to acknowledge the historical context of Leviticus. At a perilous time when the primary concern of a nomadic people was to increase the numbers of the tribe, anything that prevented or reduced the possibility of conception (e. g. masturbation, coitus interruptus, or gay sex) was proscribed. God did not issue the decree; the tribe’s leaders did. The wonder–and scandal–is that the same tribal mindset has survived at an institution of higher learning.

  6. I wanted to add to the many points raised above that discussion of the publi health issues continues in an interesting piece out today by Gail Bolan on how sexually active youth can stay safe from STIs.

  7. BK Chaney says:

    It would be interesting to know how many Catholic high schools and colleges even make tampons available to female students. When I attended a Jesuit-run law school in the 80s, female law students requested tampon dispensers in the restrooms and were denied them!

  8. donnadara says:

    Unless they ban sex on campus, it seems nonsensical to ban condom distribution. Isn’t sex outside of marriage at least as offensive to the Catholic church as use of condoms? I am a Christian, but not a Catholic, but I know that God does not classify some sins as greater then others. If they are turning a blind eye to extramarital sex, they need to turn a blind eye to condom distribution as well.

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