Editor’s note: This is the first in a series titled “Choice on a Catholic Campus,” discussing sexual health, reproductive rights and religion at Fairfield’s two universities, both Catholic.
FAIRFIELD — Amid a sea of colorful posters and booths exploring consent and safe sex, a Fairfield University senior presented one guest with a list of demands. To interim president Lynne Babington, she handed a petition with about 200 signatures asking the Jesuit university to offer more access to contraceptives and other sexual health services.
“Students are going to have sex, and if they’re not going to be provided contraceptives, they’re still going to do it and it will be a less-safe action,” said Riley Barrett, the College Democrats president and a graduating senior.
Barrett read the demand for condoms on campus aloud to Babington at “Let’s Talk Sex,” a student-organized event in early March. Two years earlier at the same event, students held signs with messages including, “Expecting condoms? So were we.”
Conversations about safe sex, Planned Parenthood and abortion rights have been mounting over the past few years on the Fairfield campus, a 75-year-old Jesuit school that deeply values its Catholic mission. As students graduate this weekend, some recently reflected on the campus debate. Planned Parenthood’s presence on campus and the university’s stance against distributing or selling condoms have become particular topics of discord this year, and some students said certain debates have grown more contentious in the current political climate.
In this and a series of following articles, the Fairfield Citizen examines the discourse about contraception, abortion and related topics on Fairfield’s two college campuses, Fairfield University and Sacred Heart University (SHU). Both Catholic, the institutions cling strongly to religious values alongside their educational programs.
‘Let’s Talk Sex’
The roots of the event this March lie in an Oct. 7, 2014, display by Fairfield University’s chapter of Students for Life, a national organization of students advocating against abortion. Outside of the Barone Campus Center, some students had filled a lawn with tiny pink crosses representing the graves of aborted fetuses.
“It was very offensive; it was very in your face,” Barrett, a 22-year-old from Sisters, Ore. recalled. She saw the display as a sophomore and described it as explicitly anti-Planned Parenthood and riddled with factual inaccuracies about the family planning clinic. “It was in a central location that you can’t avoid…It sparked this huge controversy on campus that I felt like needed to be addressed.”
The two students set to take charge of Students for Life this fall said they never intend to host a similar event, explaining they would not want to trigger or harm a woman who had gotten an abortion with a similar display.
“It could be harmful to someone,” said sophomore Katie Curry, one of the incoming presidents. “There could be a woman walking by who had an abortion and that would trigger something so negative, and I personally don’t want that to happen to someone. I personally don’t agree with the way that happened and the way that was presented, but it’s all raising awareness.”
Barrett and fellow College Democrats wanted an event to help, as they saw it, set the record straight. They wanted to invite Planned Parenthood representatives to speak for themselves and offer a larger fair with organizations at different booths to talk about affirmative consent, safe sex and sexual health resources for students. They held “Let’s Talk Sex” shortly after the fall 2014 Students for Life demonstration and again held iterations the following school year and this March.
The event launched an unintended debate.
Planned Parenthood usually distributes condoms along with educational information at events, and student organizers had advertised condoms would be available at the health fair. But administrators warned Barrett and College Democrats against distributing contraceptives.
“We were explicitly told by the administration we were not allowed to,” Barrett said. “They told me you can’t give out condoms or we will disband your club and hold you accountable personally.”
Barrett said she challenged that the university’s code of conduct did not bar distributing condoms. She contends she was then told she was being given a direct administrative order against it. Her account was documented in a Dec. 4, 2014 news story in the university’s independent student newspaper, The Fairfield Mirror.
Asked about the incident, university Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jennifer Anderson said Planned Parenthood is welcome on campus as long as they — or any other third party organization — respects the values and wishes of the university. Pierrette Comulada Silverman, vice president of education and training for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, said the organization is always respectful of any organization or university hosting its representatives and asks the parameters of the school or community setting where they’ll be doing outreach.
This March, the College Democrats and concurrent students took action. About 200 signed the demand Barrett read to the interim president during “Let’s Talk Sex.”
“(Babington) was really wonderful. She showed up, she looked at everybody’s boards, she let us talk to her about what we would like to see on campus,” Barrett said. “But then she pretty promptly responded with the answer that Fairfield, as a Jesuit institution, will not provide contraception for students on campus.”
The demand asked clubs, organizations and resident assistants be allowed to distribute contraceptives on campus, and that contraceptives be sold at the on-campus bookstore. It requested the student health center be able to prescribe birth control and for it to offer contraceptives to students. The petition also asked for free sexually transmitted diseases testing year-round and specific additional educational programs and literature about safe sex.
Fairfield University maintains it will not provide or sell contraceptives — like condoms — on its campus or allow student groups or resident assistants to do so either, considering them representatives of the school. Some students concur with the school’s adherence to religious doctrine, while others are concerned a lack of access to contraception on campus is in conflict with the university’s mission and has an adverse effect on student health and wellness.
The university is not alone: SHU does not provide students with condoms or sell them on campus. Neither do the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. or Boston College, fellow Jesuit universities. The country’s oldest Jesuit institution, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has taken a more moderate approach, allowing a student group to give out condoms.
Local non-religious institutions University of Bridgeport and University of Connecticut distribute condoms to students for free.
Anderson, one of Fairfield University’s vice presidents, was with Babington at the event and said they both listened to what students had to say, reviewed students demands and responded.
While the students said they didn’t feel there was much consideration on the administration’s part, Anderson said student requests are always taken seriously and that while no policy changes came of the demand, Babington was active in working and meeting with the students.
Anderson said she couldn’t comment on specific requests because no policies were changed. Fairfield University denied requests for interviews with Babington, health center staff and campus religious leadership.
“We are Catholic Jesuits. We don’t hand out condoms on campus,” Anderson said. “We provide services that allow students to get to town and encourage them to buy whatever they need to buy in town. But it’s just not something that we as an institution choose to openly hand out on a college campus.”
The Roman Catholic Church condemns the use of artificial contraception and preaches abstinence until marriage. While Pope Francis showed some leniency last year in the specific case of Zika — expressing it could be morally acceptable to use contraception to fight the virus as it spread severe birth defects in Latin America — he did not address other circumstances.
Anderson added that as 18-year-old adults, students can make their own choices and aren’t provided with a litany of other products like soap or shampoo. “A student’s personal choice is a student’s personal choice,” she said.
The student demand challenged, in part, that “Fairfield University finds itself falling behind in the social understanding of sexual health and sexuality in comparison to other Jesuit institutions, as well as a majority of higher education institutions in the United States.”
Asked about the statement, Anderson said, “As far as falling behind, if they consider (Boston College) and Holy Cross as falling behind as well, then that’s a perspective they can have.”
Students behind the demand referenced Georgetown in support of their objective. Georgetown made headlines in 2013 when it allowed a student group, H*yas for Choice, to run a condom delivery service. The group again launched a delivery service, the Condom Fairy Delivery Service, this February, student newspaper The Hoya reported.
Students attempting something similar at Boston College faced a response like Fairfield’s: the school told students they could stop or face punishment, according to the Huffington Post.
But Barrett and fellow seniors Abigayel Phillips and Jessica Romeo feel freshman year educational programs don’t cover safe sex well enough and believe the university owes students more services. Phillips and Romeo are among leadership of the Reproductive Rights Talk and Action Group, founded in the fall.
“We’re very concerned about the health of students and being realistic about being young and access,” said Phillips, a 23-year-old from Orange.
Romeo, 22 and from New Jersey, said of the college’s women’s and sexual health services, “It’s to the point where I’d barely consider Fairfield a resource at all.”
The university’s health services offer “confidential, non-judgmental” care, including urological exams, pregnancy testing, STD testing and treatment, HIV testing and gynecological examinations, including pap smears, according to Anderson.
When services are beyond what health and counseling staff are equipped to address, they refer to specialists or community providers like an area OB-GYN. Students can’t get prescription birth control for contraceptive use, but the school allows its health staff to provide oral contraceptives for medical need as part of a student’s treatment plan with an outside doctor or gynecologist.
Anderson referred to the “Let’s Talk Sex” event and several educational programs about consent and alcohol abuse as sex education opportunities for students.
She added students are encouraged to talk with third-party providers that specialize in sexual health, like Planned Parenthood — as long as they don’t hand out condoms at campus events.
A tricky topic
College Republicans issued a statement on their Facebook page Feb. 27 condemning Planned Parenthood’s presence on campus. Within the statement, the student group also wrote, “We also do not support the distribution of contraceptives on campus, as we are a private, Catholic institution. We believe that students should take personal responsibility when choosing to have sex. It is not the school’s responsibility to provide means for sex, as contraceptives are not a right.”
The student group chose to issue the statement on Facebook with the hope it would spread quickly to express members’ beliefs that Planned Parenthood had “no business” being on campus and that as a private, Jesuit university, Fairfield University should not be expected to provide students means for sex, Fairfield sophomore Haley Falls explained in an email.
“We believe as a group that if students choose to engage in such acts, they should take personal responsibility and purchase their own means of contraception,” the communications director for the Connecticut College Republicans wrote. “A Jesuit institution should not have to give up its values just because students incorrectly think that access to contraception is a right.”
Curry and Lauren Hart, sophomores who will take over as Students for Life co-presidents next year, agreed the university should not be forced to provide contraceptives for students but they didn’t discourage their use either.
“The whole contraceptives issue is really hard to talk about,” Curry admitted.
“As someone who is pro-life, when you’re talking about preventing people from getting abortions, that’s one of the things that ends up being a preventative action,” she added. “However, we think that as a school, we shouldn’t be forced to provide stuff like that.”
“—Because of the Catholic Church’s stance,” chimed in Hart.
While the situation would be different at a public university, she went on to say, Fairfield University is Catholic. “Regardless of how we feel personally on the issue, we feel like the university should uphold certain standards,” Hart said.
“But it’s a hard issue,” she added.
Both said condom distribution is not a bad thing in itself and while abstinence is a good idea, they recognize it’s not practical for everyone.
“The Stag Bus goes to Stop & Shop every hour on the hour. It’s not like it’s not accessible. It’s not like we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Hart said. “There are places where you can get what you need.”
When they chose what college to attend, however, several students explained that they didn’t realize condoms were not available at Fairfield University.
“I don’t think anybody did (realize) — until they showed up on campus,” Barrett said.