Alexandra Mangione went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school and now attends Boston College. “I go to church. I believe in God,’’ says Mangione, a 20-year-old sophomore at the Catholic college. She also believes in birth control.
“The reality is that young Catholic women are absolutely sexually active, and they are on contraceptives,’’ says Mangione. Birth control should be covered by health insurance, she says, because women who are denied it are “forced to have an abortion, or they raise a child that they can’t support or they put a baby up for adoption.’’
Candidates, commentators - most recently Rush Limbaugh - and religious conservatives may be exercised over contraceptive coverage, but the majority of women see the issue as long settled. For young Catholic women born after birth control became accessible, the debate is about politics, not their lives.
Ninety-nine percent of women have used birth control at some point, including 98 percent of Catholic women, according to a 2011 report by the Guttmacher Institute.
“In real-life America, contraceptive use and strong religious beliefs are highly compatible,’’ says Rachel K. Jones, the report’s lead author.
Studies also indicate that the majority of Americans believe insurance should cover the costs of birth control - and that most sexually active Americans use contraception. According to a 2011 Thomson Reuters survey, 77 percent of respondents believe that both private and government-assisted medical insurance should cover all or some of the costs of birth-control pills. Among those 35 and younger, the number rose to 83 percent.
Lizzie Jekanowski, 21, a Catholic cochairwoman of a group called BC Students for Sexual Health (a group that is not sanctioned by the administration at the Jesuit college), believes that the debate over birth control is nothing more than politics.
“A lot of us feel this isn’t a moral issue but purely a health one,’’ she says, adding that most people she knows on campus are sexually active and use contraceptives. “There’s really a divide between what we’re seeing in legislation and in the way people actually live their lives.’’
The issue of insurance coverage for birth control has raged since January, when President Obama announced that universities and hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church and other religious groups need to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their employee health benefits.
Catholic bishops objected, saying the policy would violate their beliefs. Congressional Republicans, along with some of the presidential candidates and evangelical groups, jumped into the fray, turning it into a national debate on religious freedom.
In a compromise following the furor, Obama agreed to exempt religious organizations as long as insurers provide the coverage. The compromise has not placated Obama’s Republican rivals, congressional Republicans, or the Catholic Church.
Republican leaders introduced the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed employers and insurers to limit health care coverage, including contraception, based on religious or moral objections. The measure, cosponsored by Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, was narrowly defeated Thursday in the Senate.
The debate heated up over the weekend after conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh denounced Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke as “a slut’’ and “prostitute’’ because she testified before Congress about the need for contraceptive coverage.
Brianne MacIsaac, a hairdresser in Braintree, says Limbaugh was out of line. “This is not like the ’50s or ’60s when you did everything by the church’s rules,’’ says MacIsaac, 21, who added that she goes to church and believes in God. “Things have changed.’’
Haley Sprague, 26, is married and calls herself a faithful Catholic, but disagrees with her church on contraception. She is on the birth-control pill, which her husband’s health plan covers.
“I think women should be able to have contraception covered by health insurance, because sex happens all the time, and it’s starting at a younger age, too,’’ says Sprague, who lives in Quincy. “There are so many young girls having babies and so many broken homes and single moms who can’t afford contraception. I don’t think the church’s opinion will change young women’s behavior.’’
Jessika Parry, a sophomore at Boston College, has been on the birth-control pill since age 15. She started taking it to treat severe cramps, but now she takes it as much to prevent pregnancy. She is annoyed that she cannot get the pill - or any other type of contraception - on campus.
“I went on [the pill] for health reasons, but now I definitely use it for birth control,’’ says Parry, 19. “I’m not Catholic, but I attend a Catholic school, and I don’t want my rights to be infringed upon just because I chose this school.’’
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn says that campus Health Services does not give out condoms or medications, though doctors would prescribe “pills for endometriosis,’’ a condition involving the uterus.
“Our students receive excellent care, but they understand when they enroll that we have certain commitments as a Catholic institution that we intend to uphold,’’ Dunn says.
The Catholic Church has consistently affirmed that “openness to children’’ is an integral part of marriage, says Richard Gaillardetz, a theology professor at Boston College. In 1968, Pope Paul VI “reiterated that every marital sexual act must be open to new life, and therefore the recourse to artificial means of preventing conception was always immoral.’’
Gaillardetz, who teaches a course, Marriage and Family in the Christian Tradition, says few of his students believe that birth control is always morally wrong, but they tend to agree that “couples should not use contraception merely to further a self-absorbed and selfish lifestyle.’’
Since the debate began, Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts has fielded calls from women of all ages - as well as men - complaining about the political football the issue has become.
“It’s very interesting that I’ve been doing quite a few interviews with college newspapers,’’ says Dianne Luby, president. “It’s completely outside their reality. They didn’t ever think this would be a question, that you wouldn’t have access to contraceptives.’’
At Boston College, BC Students for Sexual Health offers “safe sites,’’ or rooms where students can get condoms and sexual education materials. Every two weeks, they also hand out condoms by the hundreds at a site adjacent to campus.
“Traditionally in the church, sex is to be done within a mutually exclusive and loving marriage and for the procreation of children,’’ Jekanowski says. “But when you look at statistics nowadays, that’s so illogical from the way men and women are leading their lives.’’
Ashley MacVarish, 25, of Pembroke, is married and has three children, all of them baptized in the Catholic Church. She says women should have access to affordable birth control, and she says she and her friends - married and unmarried - use contraceptives.
“I feel women should be able to get birth control because they may not be ready to have children, and because of the finances,’’ says MacVarish, who works as an emergency room aide. “I’d love to have multiple children, but three’s a lot financially, especially with college costing $60,000 a year.’’
The debate over Catholic women and contraceptives spans generations. To Joan Moynagh, who has 10 siblings, the issue of birth control should be personal, not political. “The whole debate is forcing a very private issue out into the open, and that’s inappropriate,’’ she says.
Moynagh says her parents had decided they wanted a large family, but she and her siblings, also raised Catholic, did not. The most children any of them have is three.
“I feel it was my choice to use birth control and be pretty deliberate about having three kids,’’ says Moynagh, 52, who is the development director for the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. “I think it’s so extraordinary that anyone should tell any woman what to do with her body.’’Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.