Standing With Pregnant Students

If a student at a Catholic college becomes pregnant, what kind of support, if any, can she expect the college to give her to help her carry her pregnancy to term? Not much, many observers would suppose. Students at Catholic colleges, particularly those that have a residential regulation that prohibits sex in the dorms, easily assume that pregnant students will lose university housing. If a student at a Catholic college wanted a pregnancy test, she might, therefore, hesitate to go to the institution’s health services for fear that she would face an uncertain reception and her parents might find out. She might choose instead to buy a pregnancy test at the drug store, something that could be done without trouble, or take a free pregnancy test off campus. A Catholic college may, indeed, be prepared to offer a pastoral response to a student who comes to its health services for a pregnancy test and to put that student in touch with other resources on campus. But if the gateway to the institutional information about support for a pregnant student is a pregnancy test at the college’s health services, many students will simply assume that the school does not in fact provide any support.

Catholic colleges and universities often try to embody Catholic teaching about sexuality in their housing and health services policies, but rarely do they communicate Catholic pro-life teaching through organized institutional support for pregnant students. Jesuit colleges and universities are no exception, despite aspects of the Jesuit tradition identified by the U.S. Jesuit provincials in Standing for the Unborn: A Statement of the Society of Jesus in the United States on Abortion (reprinted in America, 5/26/03). This statement points to the need for Jesuit institutions to stand with pregnant students as part of their mission. Failure in this area threatens to undermine the provincials’ efforts to contribute to discourse about abortion, because discontinuity between word and action interrupts effective communication.


In that statement, the U.S. Jesuit provincials aimed to improve public discourse about abortion in the United States by providing a model for mutually respectful dialogue in a pluralistic society. Given the polarized nature of most public discourse about abortion, there is certainly great need for this. Not only is the tone of a dialogue significant but also its relationship to institutional practices. Consider how the Catholic Church’s efforts to advocate justice for women in society have encountered resistance because of the church’s own institutional injustices toward women. Credible contributions to the dialogue call for institutional embodiments of the message articulated in public. Since the provincials’ statement claims that to be pro-life is to be pro-woman, one might ask what support is available for pregnant students at Jesuit colleges and universities.

In my view, the most significant contribution Jesuit institutions of higher education could make on this question would be the institutional embodiment of three aspects of the Jesuit tradition: promoting justice, valuing freedom and ministering to women. All three are identified in the 2003 statement. Embodying these aspects of the Jesuit tradition by standing with pregnant students is essential to a Jesuit college or university’s mission and ministry.

An understanding of justice rooted in the Christian faith calls for an analysis of the ways in which structural injustices within institutions influence students’ decisions about whether to carry a pregnancy to term. The biblical understanding of justice, which draws attention to the needs of the widow and the orphan in the context of a patriarchal society, invites us to consider our response to the needs of pregnant students, who are a marginal group on campus and for whom the risk of poverty, as single mothers, is high. How do our institutions facilitate freedom from the fear of losing campus housing, for example, or of having to get along without adequate health insurance? How do we facilitate a pregnant student’s freedom to carry her pregnancy to term and continue her education? By examining both policies and perceptions that influence pregnant students’ choices, we can act in ways that will serve these women by fostering greater freedom.

As I look around a Jesuit university campus, I am struck by the absence of noticeably pregnant students. While some might speculate that few of the 185,000 students at American Jesuit colleges and universities are becoming pregnant, I would like to suggest that a number of students are in fact facing difficult decisions about whether to give birth or abort, whether to stay in school or leave, whether to raise the child or allow adoptive parents to do so. Among those 185,000 students, there is diversity in the type of degree sought (undergraduate, graduate, law and medicine), marital status and age (even among the undergraduates, when one takes nontraditional undergraduates into account). Listening to students in general, and pregnant students in particular, can help an institution identify differences in the needs associated with pregnancy for various types of studentsolder, married graduate students and single, traditional-age undergraduates. The latter group tends to have greater needs for support, but these needs are less frequently discussed.

Much of a college’s or university’s attention is focused on the needs of these younger undergraduates, who are typically single. Some might suppose that Catholic teaching influences these students to choose not to engage in premarital sex. To the extent that this is the case, their choice is countercultural. On the other hand, it might be supposed that sexually active students are effectively using contraception to prevent pregnancy. But one then calls to mind theepisode of Friends in which Rachel tells Ross that she is pregnant because of a contraceptive failure. In fact, the majority of women who have an abortion were using contraception during the month in which they conceived, according to an Alan Guttmacher Institute survey conducted in 2000-1. I think there are more pregnant students at Jesuit colleges and universities (as well as other schools) than people realize.

It is difficult for schools to know which of their students are pregnant and facing decisions about the future. While various departments and services in a college or university might be prepared to respond pastorally to pregnant students, how does the school make it known that it has an institutional commitment to help pregnant students? Knowing that students seek information on the Web, I searched the sites of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States using the keywords pregnant and pregnancy. This search was made 11 months after the release of Standing for the Unborn. Many of these colleges and universities had nothing to say about assisting pregnant students. Only seven schools indicated that a pregnancy test was available on campus through health services or a wellness center; only four schools identifed counseling as a resource; only two schools identified campus ministry as a resource; only one identified a women’s center as a resource; and only three schools mentioned the possibility of deferring repayment of a federal student loan.

While most of the 28 Jesuit schools do not communicate their ability to support pregnant students, Georgetown University and Marquette University are notable exceptions. These institutions make organized efforts to respond to pregnancies on campus. The former houses its institutional response in Health Education Services and the latter in University Ministry. In both cases a student can learn about the university’s comprehensive response through a single Web site that addresses many of the questions and needs a pregnant student might have.

Georgetown’s Health Education Services has a Pregnancy Services Web page that not only provides a comprehensive list of resources (including health services, counseling, campus ministry, the women’s center and deans) but also anticipates possible concerns of pregnant students. This outreach begins by recognizing how the pregnant student might feel (confused, alone, trapped, pressured by others) and inviting the student to enter into a confidential conversation with professional staff at the university who can provide support. To facilitate this outreach, Pregnancy Services responds to a 24-hour pager.

Through a pregnancy resource forum, held annually since March 1997, Georgetown students are able to learn from administrators about aid that is available for pregnant students. In turn, administrators are able to learn from students about needs for additional forms of support. Through this process, for example, administrators addressed the misconception that pregnant students could not live in dorms, and they learned from students about the need for affordable housing for students with children. A fruit of this conversation is an endowment-sponsored townhouse that has housed pregnant students and students with children. This model of mutual learning makes it possible for the university as a whole to enter into greater solidarity with pregnant students.

Unlike Georgetown’s Pregnancy Services Program, which is housed in the offices of Health Education Services, Marquette’s organized response to the needs of pregnant members of the university community is an aspect of University Ministry. The Life After Pregnancy, Parenting, Placement (L.A.P.) Web page identifies feelings commonly associated with an unexpected pregnancy, like loneliness, fear and confusion. It also identifies common topics that one could profitably discuss with members of a network who have been through the same experience or with others who are sensitive to the concerns of a woman in this situation. Not only does the program provide counseling and networking; it also offers information about university housing and social services in the community, transportation to medical care and childbirth classes and mentoring by experienced mothers. The Web page provides a resource list that includes health services, the counseling center, hospitals, social service agencies and Birthright.

The Pastoral Care Web page at Marquette makes clear that the university wants to respond not only to the needs of pregnant members of the community but also to the needs of those members of the community who have experienced abortion. These two ministries are more closely connected than many realize. It is not unknown for a post-abortive woman, who felt she had no option but abortion, to conceive a replacement child and face challenges similar to those in the previous pregnancy. Marquette’s University Ministry offers a model for serving community members who are pregnant, post-abortive or both.

A Jesuit college or university’s response to pregnant students certainly needs to take seriously the particular needs of individual students. Boston College, Creighton University, Georgetown University, Gonzaga University, Seattle University and Wheeling Jesuit University have received pregnant students from other schools, according to Mary Cunningham Agee, the president and founder of the Nurturing Network. In this way, these schools have responded to the needs of students who did not want to remain during their pregnancy at the school in which they were previously enrolled.

The fact that students do choose to leave the school they were attending when they became pregnant serves as an invitation for institutional self-evaluation to determine the extent to which a school’s structures and policies, as well as its success in communicating with students, create an environment that can help students carry a pregnancy to term and continue their education. Among the structures and policies worthy of examination are: student health insurance policies for maternity coverage and the possibility of coverage for dependents; billing policies for health services, to determine if they undermine student confidentiality; housing policies regarding living in a dorm while pregnant or returning to a dorm after a leave of absence; availability of affordable child care on campus for students; academic support systems to assist students who have to miss classes; and financial aid policies for those who take a leave of absence. Such an examination of institutional structures and policies will be more effective if students participate who are aware of particular challenges at their own institutions.

A biblical understanding of justice invites structural responses to the needs of pregnant students, who are often marginalized. These changes can be a necessary though not sufficient means of fostering a pregnant student’s freedom both to carry her pregnancy to term and to continue her education. Campus ministry and counseling services can help a student overcome fear through the realization of greater spiritual and emotional freedom and to experience companionship rather than isolation. The Jesuit tradition of promoting justice, valuing freedom and ministering to women challenges Jesuit colleges and universities to embody these characteristics as an expression of their mission and ministry not only by standing for the unborn but also by standing with pregnant students.

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11 years 8 months ago
As Angela Senander forcefully points out in “Standing with Pregnant Students” (5/24), attentive and sensitive care for pregnant students should be an essential part of the pro-life commitment of a Catholic campus. For Jesuit institutions, the Jesuit statement, “Standing for the Unborn,” provides an even more direct challenge.

Ms. Senander notes that her survey of Web sites found that only two of our schools adequately communicate their ability to support pregnant students. My very quick check with our campus ministers indicates that in fact we do much better in actually providing services than in formally communicating their availability. There is honest disagreement about the appropriateness of the Web as a place to share information at this critical time in the life of a student, but there is no disagreement about the importance of being available and helpful. Many schools provide brochures and other literature, and use various opportunities to make known the help that is available.

Campuses are sensitive to a pregnant student’s privacy concerns in providing guidance and adequate health care, dealing with housing issues and offering financial help. On-campus services are provided not only by student health services and university ministry, but also by residence life, counseling and career services, food service and pro-life student groups. These services link with off-campus support groups like the Nurturing Network, which enables students to transfer to other campuses, and Birthright.

I am confident that Ms. Senander’s article will encourage us to re-evaluate the effectiveness of how well we are communicating our ability to be helpful to pregnant students and to improve the support networks we have in place.


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