Birth Control, Rape Culture & Catholic Higher Education: Why Aren’t We Even Teaching What We Already Know?

A Sample Fertility Chart from such smartphone apps as Kindara.
A Sample Fertility Chart from such smartphone apps as Kindara.

U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, in adherence to traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality, do not widely, systematically, or uniformly disseminate information about sexual and reproductive health to students. Insofar as this might relate to the perseverance of rape culture on campus, I assert that while it does not directly cause it, the continued radio silence and, at times, active squelching of even serious educational efforts to care for and respect the bodies of oneself and others sexually certainly do not contribute to rape culture’s undoing.

While university health centers may offer pamphlets on STI’s and STD’s, they are actively banned from the dissemination of any kind of physical contraceptive under stated fidelity to Catholic mission.[1] This surprises no one and is not without its critics. Memorably, at one Boston College alumni event I attended, actor and feminist Amy Poehler welcomed us to a night of improv comedy at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater saying she was thrilled to host her fellow Eagles at the theater she co-founded but our alma mater should not expect not receive a dime from her until University Health Services starts dispensing birth control. Her remark was received with wild applause.

There are many embattled student-led efforts at Catholic colleges to disseminate pamphlets and contraceptive materials.[2] But even bracketing any kind of change to Catholic teaching on contraceptives and sexual morality, students still find administrators’ lack of effort in promoting adequate sexual and reproductive health education to run counter to a Catholic mission which holds human dignity and care for the human person as central to its identity. What should be even more glaring is that most Catholic colleges and universities do not even adequately educate students about the only form of birth control accepted in Catholic teaching: natural family planning. There is simply no official conversation on the matter and there ought to be. Respectfully, those of us in Catholic higher education need to ask ourselves, “Why are we, in an institution of higher learning, effectively and actually prohibiting other adults—because most undergraduates are really, legally adults—from learning something, period?”

Donna Freitas’ investigation into hookup culture on college campuses reveals that “hookup culture teaches students simply not to care about sex at all.”[3] Sex, in hookup culture, is to be so casual as to be unimportant. By, not providing college students—who, again, are legal adults eligible to be drafted into the armed services and risk their lives for their country—without even so much as educational opportunities about fertility awareness methods, Catholic higher education effectively tells students they don’t care about sex at all either, rendering as lip service any language about fidelity to Catholic mission. Consider how much good Catholic institutions of higher education could do by, without any change to Catholic teaching on contraception and the sanctity of life, promoting sexual health education and awareness. Does it make sense for an institution of higher learning to stay silent, withhold, or actively obstruct the dissemination of information necessary for public and personal health and well-being from legal adults? The only form of family planning currently permissible within Catholicism is natural family planning, and that information is generally restricted to engaged couples who plan to marry within the church. While the books, materials and workshops for other secular fertility awareness methods are available, under Catholic auspices the only acceptable contraceptive methods one should use end up being taught to the select few whom the church deems appropriate. The World Youth Alliance (WYA) is one organization that seeks to change this practice. An accredited ECOSOC Civil Society Network NGO at the United Nations, WYA promotes an international human dignity curriculum, central to which is a sexual education curriculum for grades six and up that discusses topics such as “health-hormone connection,” “emotion-hormone connection,” and “human dignity & health integration.”[4]

Those working in the mission offices of Catholic colleges and universities ought to consider distributing information and holding university-wide workshops and seminars on sexual health and fertility awareness methods for students regardless of gender, marital status, or religious background as part of larger conversation on human dignity, care for oneself and one’s body, and respecting the selves and bodies of others. If the church knows that what it has to teach is good, why should it be withheld from anyone?

Why might it be important for college students of any stripe at Catholic institutions to become familiar with fertility awareness methods? Consider that section 36 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops allows the use of emergency contraception (EC) in cases of rape:

“A woman who has been raped may defend herself against a conception resulting from sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medication that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”[5]

Such testing happens in one of two ways: (1) an actual pregnancy test or (2) the Peoria Protocol, created by the St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois in 1995. The Peoria Protocol uses methods of testing for a woman’s ovulation at the time of rape to determine whether she should runs the reasonable risk of becoming pregnant, thereby having sufficient cause to take the EC pill. Aline Kalbian writes, “On one hand, it could be seen as an attempt to support emergency contraception by silencing the critics who are concerned with [EC’s] abortifacient effect. On the other hand, it certainly hinders accessibility to emergency contraception—putting rape victims through the additional trauma of determining the fact of whether or not they were ovulating would have the effect of discouraging them from using the pill.”[6] If young women are seeking treatment for rape at Catholic health care centers on campus or off, Catholic institutions of higher learning ought to be educating them about exactly what kind of healthcare decisions they may face and why.

This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.



[3] Donna Freitas, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. New York: Basic Books, 2013, 73.



[6] Aline H. Kalbian, Sex, Violence, and Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014, 106, 107.

Christine E. McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology and ethics at Fordham University writing in the area of Catholic Social Teaching and family planning.