Should Religious Colleges Be Able To Ban Condoms On Campus?

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I was troubled to learn that just last month, a prominent college right down the street from me tried to shut down a student group on campus that gives out free condoms and sexual health pamphlets. Specifically, administrators at Boston College (a Jesuit Catholic school) sent a letter to the students involved saying that “the distribution of condoms is not congruent with our values and traditions” and that if they are caught distributing condoms, they will be subject to “disciplinary action.” It is also worth mentioning that the sexual health section of the college’s website makes no mention of contraception or condoms and essentially states that abstinence is the best policy. Thus, the overall message the school seems to be sending is that restricting access to condoms and promoting abstinence will discourage students from having sex and promote better sexual health. But will it work and should colleges even have the authority to ban condoms among students? From my perspective, the answers are no and no.   

We know from a multitude of peer-reviewed studies published in top-tier journals over the past decade that abstinence-only sex education, in which adolescents are given next to no information about condoms and contraception (or are actively taught false information about reproductive health [1]), simply does not work. Period. For example, a recent study of more than 1,700 U.S. teenagers found that abstinence-only sex education did nothing to discourage sexual activity and failed to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and STIs [2]. In fact, this study found that providing students with comprehensive sex education resulted in a 50% lower likelihood of unintended teen pregnancy compared to teaching abstinence! Consistent with this finding, research has found that those U.S. states with the most abstinence-only programs have the highest rates of teen pregnancy [3]. Also, consider a recent review of dozens of studies that together sampled over 37,000 North American youth in which it was revealed that comprehensive sex education is linked to a long-term reduction in STI-risk behavior [4]. The evidence across all of this research is clear: providing too little information about safe-sex is far more dangerous than providing too much. Thus, if college administrators think that the same abstinence-only tactics that have resoundingly failed at the high-school level will somehow succeed at the college level, well, let’s just say that I have a bridge I’d like to sell them…

But it’s not just that—the other question here is whether a college has the right to tell students that they cannot give each other condoms. Condoms are legally available for purchase and use by anyone in this country and, ironically, Boston College’s health insurance plan covers contraception, as required by Massachusetts law. I realize Boston College is technically a private institution, however, I would argue that there’s no such thing as a truly “private” university in the U.S. because all colleges and universities are the beneficiaries of some type of public funding, whether in the form of direct assistance, tax-exempt status or subsidies, federally funded grants to researchers (a portion of each grant goes directly to the university), or student financial aid provided by the government. In one way or another, the taxpayers are footing part of the bill for all institutions of higher education and, in my book, that means all universities must abide by the same set of rules and therefore cannot impose restrictions on the free speech and privacy rights of students.

On a side note, I also can’t help but feel that it’s a bit hypocritical of a Catholic organization to go out of its way to prevent college students from accessing condoms, considering how far the Catholic Church has gone to ignore and cover up decades of child sexual abuse occurring within its very walls. There’s something very, very wrong in a world where students who are trying to keep one another safe by sharing condoms are threatened with “disciplinary action” while known child molesters are repeatedly given a free pass.  

Depriving college students of opportunities for peer-to-peer sex education and access to condoms is not only dangerous, but it is a violation of personal liberty. I realize that Boston College is trying to do the “moral” thing, but it is hard to see how withholding knowledge and restricting access to devices that can prevent infections and save lives accomplishes that.

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[1] Committee on Government Reform (2004). The content of federally funded abstinence-only education programs. Retrieved from: http://spot.colorado.edu/~tooley/HenryWaxman.pdf

[2] Kohler, P.K., Manhart, L.E., & Lafferty, W.E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344-351. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026

[3] Stanger-Hall, K.F., Hall, D.W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLoS ONE 6(10): e24658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

[4] Underhill, K., Operario, D., & Montgomery, P. (2007). Systematic review of abstinence-plus HIV prevention programs in high-income countries. PLoS Medicine 4: e275.

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