Boston College has taken action against a student group that dispenses condoms, intending to reinforce Catholic Church teachings in favor of marriage and against premarital sex. Administrators are certainly within their rights, as overseers of a private Catholic institution, to crack down. But it’s still an unfortunate move: The administration and the student group coexisted respectfully for four years before the administration abruptly changed course. There’s no reason to believe they can’t do so again. And BC’s leaders would earn the admiration of students by being mindful of their interests and needs — which might, in turn, make them more receptive to church teachings.
In 2009, nearly 90 percent of BC students voted in favor of a referendum asking for better access to contraceptives and more information on preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A student-led group, Boston College Students for Sexual Health, stepped up, and has over the past four years been distributing condoms and safe-sex pamphlets from sidewalk booths and 18 so-called “safe sites” in dorms. Now, without any extra provocation by the students, the college is ordering the group to stop, declaring that its actions are in conflict with the “responsibility to protect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.”
BC is a vibrant, diverse community of students of differing religious and ethnic backgrounds. Like all young people, BC students are at disproportionate risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases; of the 19 million new infections each year, nearly half are among people aged 15 to 24. The longterm consequences can include infertility, cervical cancer, and, in the case of HIV, death. Condoms provide a solid measure of protection against all these dire outcomes. More than contraception, condoms are a means of preserving public health.
The student group provides, in a peer setting, education about how to have safer sex, for those who choose it. Making students aware of the risks presented by STDs, not to mention the possibility of unplanned pregnancy, doesn’t amount to advocating sexual activity — and may indeed deter it. Regardless, this is information that students need.
At discreetly marked sites in campus dorms, students can obtain condoms; attached to each condom is a pamphlet on protecting against STDs. Asking students to head off campus instead and walk a mile to the nearest drugstore may seem reasonable enough, but it serves to deprive them of services and information delivered in a peer setting. Worse yet, some might skip the walk entirely.
Accepting BC’s Catholic values is part of enrolling, and clergy, faculty, and administrators have regular opportunities to provide moral instruction. There is no indication that, over these past four years, students involved in handing out condoms have been trying to make a mockery of that tradition. They say they’ve tried to keep administrators abreast of the group’s efforts, meeting several times a year. Their hope is to reestablish a working relationship. In the name of protecting their students, BC administrators should welcome that conversation.