Boston College May Have Been Caught with Its Pants Down. What Are the Implications?
Recently Frank McLaughlin, a junior at Boston College and editor of the independent conservative Boston Observer, decided to test the policies of the Jesuits who administer that Catholic university. On three separate occasions, he sent student reporters to the Boston College health service to ask counselors questions about contraception and abortion. The students carefully recorded the advice they were given immediately following their conversations.
“We wanted to test the sincerity of the college’s commitment to Catholic principles on sexuality,” McLaughlin explains. He points to the health service student guide which states, “Because of the moral values that Boston College espouses, university health services, by policy, do not provide materials for the purpose of preventing conception, nor procedures or counsel that would encourage abortion.”
About four weeks ago, a female Boston College student showed up at the health service and was referred by the receptionist to “our resident staff expert” Peggy McNally. When the student told McNally that she was thinking about whether to have sex with her boyfriend, she expected McNally to advocate abstinence, or at least a careful examination of the issue involved.
Instead McNally recommended the pill. “It is easy to take and most effective.” There are “low amounts of hormones in today’s pill. I always recommend it.” McNally concluded, “Once you’re on the pill, there’s no reason to go off it.” She went on to discuss spermicides, condoms, and the diaphragm. “You can insert the diaphragm every time you go out, even if you’re not definitely planning on having sex.” For prescriptions for birth control McNally recommended the Crittenton Hastings House, where “the doctors are nice and it’s a comfortable setting.”
Four days later a second female student asked for help; this time McNally was busy with appointments, so the student was referred to Dr. Marion Klepser. Klepser reportedly discussed methods of birth control and said that even though Boston College could not provide a prescription, she would provide a list of clinics and private physicians who would. “Just between you and me, we’re not allowed to give out birth control.” McLaughlin and his Observer colleagues subsequently discovered that Crittenton Hastings, and two of the three private physicians recommended by Klepser, perform abortions.
Next, the Observer sent a male student, who did manage to see McNally. He claimed that his girlfriend was pregnant, but they were having reservations about whether abortion was a good idea. McNally asked if the girl was pro-choice. Told that she was, McNally reportedly expressed surprise, because being pro-choice “usually works to your advantage when you do get pregnant.”
The girl had “some serious decision-making to do,” McNally said, but if she chose abortion “she’ll do fine.” McNally argued that abortion “is much safer than being pregnant. You don’t finish the pregnancy. There is nothing there and it’s gone permanently, so there’s nothing there physically.” Told that the student and his girlfriend were planning to attend graduate school, McNally commented. “You haven’t gotten your parental skills together yet.” Having a baby “really puts you at a disadvantage right now to accomplish your own development.” McNally’s advice concerning abortion was simply, “Do it.”
McNally was not impressed by Boston College’s official policy on sexuality. “Run by men,” she said. “Nothing turns me off more.”
The Observer story, which appeared a couple of weeks ago, stirred much controversy and criticism on campus. “They’re a group of rightists,” complained Boston College theology professor Margaret Gorman. No doubt the student paper’s methodology was flawed, and its sample of interviews small. Nevertheless, according to Father Patrick Ryan, a Jesuit professor of religion, “I know these students. Sure they can go overboard sometimes, but I have no doubt that this reporting is honest.”
R. Arnold Mazure, director of the university health service, questioned the ethics of students “posing as patients.” The quotations, he said, were “distortions” and “taken out of context,” but he couldn’t give any examples. He kept returning to what he called the “false motives” of the students. “They’re trying to prove that Boston College isn’t Catholic,” he protested.
What, then, were the facts precisely? Mazur proceeded to defend the counseling practices of his staff. “We are not the Catholic Church,” he said. “It is not our responsibility to be pastoral counselors. We provide non-judgmental medical care. We are a health service.” Mazur argued that “We have Catholic students and non-Catholic students. A significant portion of the Catholic students aren’t close to the Church…. Students are entitled to get the best medical information —the best medical answers — for their particular problems.”
Mazur worried that “Students might be afraid to come to see us if they think they may not get unbiased care.” Mazur said that the health service would not “initiate” contraception but “If someone comes in and already has a prescription which has expired, a physician here might write a new prescription.” Mazur said, “I don’t support abortion personally. But if someone asks me about it I would provide information.”
Mazur concluded, “We’re trying to live in an imperfect world. There are horrible consequences — abortion or unwanted pregnancy. I would rather see a sexually active person protected.” While Mazur conceded tension between this objective and the university policy, he emphasized that Boston College hadn’t given up its Catholic identity. “If this were Cornell,” he said, “probably the health service would have condoms on display and provide both contraception and abortion.”
University chaplain Father John Dineen defended counseling for both contraception and abortion, distinguishing between information and advocacy in the latter case. “Young women are in the throes of making a decision,” he said. “Everyone knows that abortion is a choice, and it’s an easy thing to do.” On contraception Dineen was positively hortatory. “If someone is blatantly sexually active, clearly they ought to be using something to protect themselves. I realize that’s not often said.”
Dineen argued that “To follow reason is to follow the path of virtue.” Therefore, “If one is sexually active then not to take protective measures would be unreasonable and therefore immoral.” In other words, premarital sex may be wrong, but if students are going to engage in it, then it is morally essential that they use contraception.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dineen reports that only one woman has decided to keep the baby in the ten years that he has counseled at Boston College. “The policy does work,” he says. More bishops would publicly support such an approach, he speculates, but they “find it difficult to say what they really think because of the Church’s prohibition.”
Richard Doerflinger, assistant director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Catholic Conference, denied this and criticized Dineen’s line of reasoning. “The bishops are certainly not advocating contraception, much less abortion. The issue is whether information should be tolerated. The only choice that the bishops promote is abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage.” Doerflinger said it was “understandable” that the controversy over the bishops’ AIDS document had generated confusion, but nevertheless termed Dineen’s views “odd.”
According to Doerflinger, “The lesser evil argument that is sometimes used in the context of AIDS doesn’t apply here. What made the lesser evil argument somewhat plausible is the risk of death from a disease. A child is not an evil.”
Professor Margaret Gorman in the theology department says that a Catholic university should “make a distinction between official Catholic teaching and pastoral concern.” She says, “We should indicate the official policy, but then we should support the young woman in her decision, whatever that decision may be. We should look at this pastorally, not dogmatically.”
Gorman added, “The bishops’ AIDS letter is a beautiful letter that goes beyond a purist position.” She praised Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” and criticized the pro-life movement. “The very people who are against abortion” oppose government assistance to unwanted children, she said.
The Boston College administration “has to cite its Catholic principles,” Gorman said, adding that the formal statements didn’t mean very much. “It’s just like the principle that you don’t lie,” she said, “but everyone is understanding when it happens.”
John McDargh, who teaches the psychology of spirituality at Boston College, said counseling about contraception and abortion was indispensable because “Students are in tremendous pain and confusion. It honors them as moral actors to tell them what’s out there.” McDargh went into a somewhat lengthy analysis of how “the Catholic sexual ethic is tied to a “Hellenic and Stoic anthropology. We are finally getting a better understanding of anthropology.”
The idea that the primary purpose of sexuality is procreation is “weird,” according to McDargh. “We call it natural law but it’s strangely unnatural.” McDargh accused the Church of being “complicit in isolating sexual conduct from the whole context of gender relationships.” His own position, by contrast, was informed by “an understanding of the daily complexity of students’ lives.”
Less impressed with all the goings-on at Boston College is Father Patrick Ryan, S.J. “We should not give in to the secular ethic — that’s not just compromise, that’s often plain immoral.” As for contraception and abortion counseling, “There are plenty of places which do that. I think a Catholic college should be faithful to its principles.”
Ryan rejected what he called the “false inevitability” built into the actions of the Boston College health staff. “Why don’t they tell students up front: Look, what you’re doing is wrong.” Ryan added, “This is a choice between promoting right and promoting wrong. There is no real issue of a lesser evil. This is not a choice between killing one person or ten persons.”
A Catholic college, Ryan concludes, “should not be in this business. If what the Observer reports is going on, then it is outrageous morally and should be stopped. I hope that there is an investigation into all this. It’s very disturbing.”