From providing ornamental decorations for the tables in entry common rooms to filling the drawers at the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center in Jenness House, condoms abound at the College.
The general consensus on campus seems to be that free contraception is easily and confidentially available at school for those who want it. However, there is not a consensus about whether this availability is a good thing.
“I’m glad to live in a place where the people who want contraception can get it without a problem,” Mattie Mitchell ’12 said. “If people are going to have sex, which many are, I think it’s important that they are able to do so safely.” Studies show that in places where contraception is less available, the rates of STDs and unplanned pregnancies are much higher. “Because contraception is free and pretty much everywhere, it’s not difficult to practice safe sex at Williams,” Mitchell said. “For example, the bowls of condoms in entry common rooms mean that they’re on hand for anyone – both guys and girls – to pick up.”
However, not everyone on campus shares Mitchell’s positive opinions of contraception at the College. Some students felt that while certain types of contraception were readily available on campus, others barrier methods, such as dental dams, were slightly less accessible. These students expressed a desire for even more accessible contraception on campus.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, some students disapprove of the availability of contraception at the College, which they feel encourages pre-marital sex. In some situations, religion serves as a source of tension for students wary about contraception. In particular, the Catholic church has officially declared the use of all contraceptives to be a sin. “I am a proud Roman Catholic, and I struggle to live my daily life according to the Christian principles set down by the Church,” Frank Pagliaro ’14 said. “I have always had a hard time reconciling my Catholic identity with my American identity.” Despite his religious affiliation, Pagliaro accepts that access to condoms and other resources is often a part of college living. “As American Catholics, we must recognize that not all of our fellow Americans hold Christian values as dearly as we do – it’s a pluralistic society,” he said, adding, “Nobody who doesn’t want contraceptives will be forced to accept them.”
Similar religious objections to the availability of contraception have colored the national debate over healthcare coverage for such services and products. As part of President Obama’s healthcare bill, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a regulation stipulating that all employers must purchase health insurance that covers contraception for their employees. The controversy stemmed from the requirement that Catholic-affiliated employers also provide secular services to cover contraception. Because the Church prohibits the use of contraception, the Conference of Catholic Bishops believes that Catholic-affiliated organizations should be granted an exemption from covering contraceptives for employees. The Obama Administration announced a compromise which ensured that insurance companies will offer free contraception to women employed by Catholic-affiliated organizations, thereby relieving the organizations themselves of the responsibility of providing such services. However, the U.S. Bishops rejected this compromise.
Many students at the College have strong opinions on how the battle between the Obama adminstration and the Church has played out. “I don’t think in a secular, pluralistic society that claiming a religious affiliation should exempt a private employer from basic legal requirements that we as a collective have decided upon,” Billy Glidden ’14 said. “Furthermore, independent medical experts have deemed contraception to be a necessary part of female healthcare, [so] I’m okay with contraception being available here on campus.”
In addition to differing opinions about the availability of contraception, there is also a significant amount of confusion surrounding the issue. Several students told me they thought students had to pay to get condoms from Peer Health or the Health Center. As it turns out, regular Durex condoms are available for free – it’s only the high-end condoms that cost money. Another matter of uncertainty seemed to be oral contraceptives, otherwise known as “the Pill.” Many women I spoke with were not sure whether it could be obtained from the Health Center. According to Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison, students can obtain a prescription for oral contraceptives after making an appointment with the College’s gynecological clinic. A physician’s assistant will conduct an exam and fax a prescription to Rite Aid. The appointment itself is free, while the prescription itself is usually covered by the student’s insurance. The co-pay is typically $10. Additionally, Next Choice – a morning after pill – is available at the Health Center at no cost.
“Believe me, [contraception] is something we deal with every day,” Harrison said. “We try to help people as much as we can … to be informed. In terms of safer sex, knowledge is power. That’s why in addition to offering contraceptive materials, we also offer consultations to explain how to use the materials and to help students choose the method that would work best for them.” Harrison believes that this is an important resource, particularly in such an isolated community. “It’s difficult to get an appointment outside of this community. You might have to wait months,” she said.
Harrison reported that there is little controversy over contraception funding at the College. “It’s one of those things that you don’t touch in the budget,” she said. “It’s a very important piece of women’s health.”