There are students at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., who don’t pay tuition and don’t live in the college’s dorms.
They come from eight different colleges and universities, most near Belmont Abbey, but also others farther way. The students attend classes at the Benedictine school and live at MiraVia, a residence adjacent to the campus (Mira-Via.org).
Why do they live there? They are awaiting the births of their babies and learning how to parent newborns.
“It’s kind of a bold thing,” admits the college’s president, Bill Thierfelder. “We have this maternity center on a Catholic college property. You’d think, ‘My gosh, what kind of problems do you have going on over there?’”
Thierfelder points out, however, that the issue isn’t that Belmont Abbey College (BelmontAbbeyCollege.edu) has a particularly high incidence of unmarried students becoming pregnant.
Rather, the college is responding to an unfortunate phenomena on college campuses nationwide: the pervasive hook-up culture, which makes it likely that some single young women will become pregnant.
According to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 48% of community-college students have conceived a child. A report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveals that roughly 2 million college-aged women (age 18 to 24) become pregnant each year. Those pregnancies may include students at Catholic colleges or universities, although, overall, a study by Mississippi State University found that students who attend church regularly and report a deeper personal spirituality are less likely to “hook up.”
So how does a Catholic institution respond to a student whose lifestyle choices so clearly run counter to Catholic teaching? How can such an institution support a student so she feels able to choose life for her baby — without congratulating her on breaking a commandment?
“People make mistakes,” says Thierfelder. “So when they do, the question is: What do we do about it?”
Beth Rahal understands all too well the difficulty a Catholic institution faces in formulating a supportive, yet not celebratory, response to single pregnant students.
Says Rahal, the coordinator of Students for Life’s Pregnant on Campus Initiative, “How do we minister to these girls who are pregnant? We can’t just abandon them. How can we support them to make a life-affirming choice?”
Kevin Grillot, the executive director of Students for Life of Illinois, was a student at St. Louis University in 2007 when the university’s Students for Life group began to develop the Virginia D. Murphy Endowment to provide financial support to help pregnant students complete their degrees. The endowment currently exceeds $180,000.
One of the group’s other projects was developing a pamphlet referring students to a local crisis-pregnancy center. The St. Louis group printed 200 copies; the next semester, a counselor from the center told the group that 40 students had come to the center for services or consultation.
“The need [for outreach to pregnant students] wasn’t something that was clearly quantifiable,” Grillot says now. “A lot of students were either dropping out or getting abortions. They’re going off the radar and falling through the cracks.”
Becoming pregnant while attending a Catholic college or university is difficult, says John Zimmer, vice president of training and formation for Fellowship of Catholic University Students. “It is similar to situations that I’ve seen with women who come from really pro-life families,” he says. “The same fears exist, but are amplified: You fear embarrassing your parents; you worry about bringing shame on your family; you think your parents won’t understand.” He adds that these fears mean “the devil is placing this vulnerable child of God in an isolated situation. And we don’t make good decisions in isolation.” Consequently, support from the Church and others is needed.
A Hand Up, Not a Handout
Educating students about available resources is a large part of what Students for Life does — a logical step, since surveys conducted by Students for Life of America and Feminists for Life have shown that 58% of students do not know where to refer a pregnant friend who wants to give birth to her baby.
The abortion alternative, however, is ubiquitous: 79% of Planned Parenthood affiliates are located within five miles of a college/university campus.
These statistics are at the heart of MiraVia’s mission, which was launched in 1994 in Charlotte, N.C., as Room at the Inn.
The program shifted direction, according to its executive director, Jeannie Wray, when the board realized college students are “the most abortion-vulnerable population,” and “there was no one who was targeting the college-student population” with housing for pregnant students.
Benedictine Abbot Placid Solari, of Belmont Abbey, who was on MiraVia’s board, spoke with his brother monks after learning this information, and the community decided to donate property for a new residence that would serve unmarried and pregnant college students. “The culture is overwhelming,” says Abbot Placid.
“The very identity and nature of [Belmont Abbey College] continues to reinforce the message of the Catholic faith. However ... contemporary entertainment, culture and media are not supportive of that message; college students tend to be sexually active. There simply are no facilities for a woman to be on campus with her baby. That’s why MiraVia is so important.”
Wray recalls the board reviewing surveys showing that 70% of college students who had abortions did so because they felt trapped. “Everyone should have a life choice and a life-affirming choice,” says Wray. “You should not be that desperate. That’s where our board came in. This is a population we could help.”
Supporting vulnerable women to choose life for their babies hasn’t come without controversy, says Thierfelder, who has been told by countless people, “I don’t think we should be encouraging people in this way.”
“You’re telling me someone went and got pregnant so they could get a room and food while going to school?” he asks. “I don’t think so. If you’ve done something that has led you to become pregnant, and you’re not married ... that’s not a good place to be. But the question is: What do we do about it?”
Thierfelder points out that MiraVia has borne many spiritual benefits, both among its residents and the larger student body. MiraVia residents need not be Catholic, he explains. And when they find themselves on a Catholic college campus, living in a residence with Catholic roots, feeling loved and supported, their eyes are opened to the beauty of the Catholic faith, including Church teaching on chastity and God’s plan for love.
Support Is Key
That combination — practicing faith-filled love and experiencing the tough reality of single parenthood — may have been what inspired one Belmont Abbey College class to throw a baby shower for a fellow student, a MiraVia resident who had transferred to the college from out of state.
It wasn’t a celebration of the choices that led to the student’s pregnancy outside of wedlock — it was a celebration of life, says Thierfelder. “Our students [aren’t] saying, ‘Hey, this is a great thing,’” he explains. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t throw you away. We still love you; we love the life within you — a soul created for eternity.’”
Like the abbot, Rahal speaks about the importance of disseminating the Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage — while also recognizing the reality that if students become pregnant they will need support: “We’re at this point where we can no longer say it’s not happening, because it’s happening.”
Administrations may be concerned that being more open with pregnancy resources could be viewed as condoning activities contrary to the teachings of the Church. But pro-life activists believe that reticence simply makes it more difficult for student mothers to choose life. “If you don’t see any resources available, they might as well not be available,” says Grillot. “The student handbook deals with a lot of issues,” he adds. “Alcohol [abuse] is in there. You don’t want to promote that, but you want to have resources for it.”
In fact, more open discussions of temptation, sin and the repercussions of premarital sex might help young people to break free of the hook-up culture they’ve grown up in, says Raquel Kato, the mother of a 2-year-old son whom she conceived when she was a 21-year-old college student. Kato says people are afraid to talk about sexual temptation; and in isolation, some young people make poor choices.
“It’s not just a matter of ‘it’s bad’; you know that, and, therefore, you shouldn’t do it,” says Kato, who works at a crisis-pregnancy center in Colorado. “None of us are above this. We all sin. Let’s talk about that, and let’s talk about how hard it is [to fight temptation], so you can get support.”
Indeed, support is the key — whether in an effort to prevent premarital sex and possible pregnancy or after a baby has been conceived, says Rahal.
Given “the stigma, the lack of resources and the abortion industry literally targeting their age group, that small moment of support — that baby shower — can make all the difference.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.