Zika Requires Us to Reimagine the Link Between Contraceptives, Health, and Religion

By Adair Tishler |

DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the U.S., describes itself as “Catholic, Vincentian, and urban.” DePaul claims to be tolerant of many different cultures and identities and ideas, which is a huge selling point for the campus and a major reason why I decided to attend. Students can obtain a degree in Women and Gender studies with a minor in LGBTQ and Islamic World studies. There is an entire Office of Religious Diversity that houses 15 non-Catholic religious organizations and boasts full-time Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant staff. However, as with other Catholic universities like Boston College, one place where DePaul maintains traditional doctrine is in its ban on the distribution of contraceptives on campus. A school that prides itself on being tolerant and diverse should live up to that mission and not restrict its students’ access to contraceptives.

The Catholic ban on the use of contraceptives—which includes all birth control methods except the rhythm method, and then only between married couples—has recently been reevaluated because of the Zika virus outbreak. According to the CDC, Zika infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth effects and can be transmitted via mosquito bite or sex, even before symptoms begin. Though Zika is not in Illinois, it is beginning to spread with a total of 2,260 cases already reported in the United States.

Due to the seriousness of the infection, this February, Pope Francis suggested the use of condoms might be acceptable as a “lesser evil” to prevent Zika transmission. This is a groundbreaking change from the same Church that refused to reverse its position on condom use to control the spread of HIV back in 2009, on the grounds that it could make the spread worse.

The situation around Zika illustrates that access to contraceptives is a public health issue; by failing to reevaluate their policy, DePaul and other colleges who follow this policy are fueling an ongoing public heath crisis. According to the CDC, by the age of 19 approximately 70 percent of women and men have had sexual intercourse. That means that a supermajority of DePaul students have likely had, or will have, sex while they are students. While DePaul does have an Office of Health Promotion and Wellness that does great work, such as providing holistic advice regarding sexual health, the employees are not able to supply the students with contraception.

As early as 1996, medical associations including the National Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American School Health Association were recommending that condoms be made available as part of comprehensive school health programs. Their recommendations stem from the realization that small barriers can often greatly affect sexual health. One study found that charging just 25 cents per condom reduced obtainment and usage by 70 percent. If 25 cents reduces usage by almost three-quarters, imagine what a half-mile to Walgreens and a $6 price tag means.

And if the barriers for condom usage become too high, there can be grave repercussions. According to the CDC, 9.4 billion tax dollars are spent on teen childbearing costs, while $16 billion is spent on major non-AIDS STDs and their complications. There is no statistic for tax dollars spent on AIDS, but it is estimated that discounted drug costs for anti-retrovirals are approximately $303,100 per person for the drugs alone over the course of a lifetime with no complications. Complications from non-AIDS STDs can include life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, increased likelihood of certain types of cancer, infertility, spontaneous abortions, and neurological damage.

The UN has declared that “Women’s and adolescents’ right to contraceptive information and services is grounded in internationally recognized human rights… Guaranteeing access to available, acceptable, and good quality contraceptive information… is critical for achieving gender equality and ensuring that women can participate as full members of society.” Because women and adolescents are disproportionately affected by STDs, they are often left to pay the price of a joint mistake. Access to a comprehensive sexual health service is not just a religious issue; it is a health and human rights issue. The outbreak of Zika has been a terrible tragedy, but perhaps we can treat this crisis as an opportunity to reimagine the relationship between religion and health policy, both at DePaul and at other colleges and universities across the country.

Adair Tishler is co-president of Roosevelt @ DePaul.