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Moms on campus: How are Catholic colleges helping students facing unexpected pregnancies?

Katie, a student at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, eats with her baby, Lucia, on her lap in the company of fellow students. Katie is among the first students to benefit from a new initiative at the Catholic college called the St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers, which provides free babysitting and other material support for young mothers on campus. / Fabrizio Alberdi, EWTN News in Depth

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 21, 2023 / 05:00 am (CNA).

How does a Catholic college respond when a young woman pursuing her degree faces an unexpected pregnancy?

On a growing number of campuses, the response is both compassionate and pragmatic, as schools have begun putting their pro-life values into action with resources like tuition breaks, special housing arrangements, dedicated lactation rooms, “expectant mother” parking spaces, and even free babysitting.

That’s the main takeaway from a new survey of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities and interviews with student moms and school administrators by EWTN News.

A joint undertaking by Catholic News Agency, the National Catholic Register, and EWTN News In Depth, the multi-part package of news stories and TV reports takes a closer look at an issue that has taken on new urgency since the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision last June overturning Roe v. Wade. You can read the full series here.

The shame and scandal an unexpected pregnancy may have caused on a Catholic campus in the past is giving way to more proactive, life-affirming policies, informed by a keener awareness of the pressure society places on unmarried young women to opt for abortion.

The pro-life movement needs this kind of “strong and beautiful” witness more than ever, says Monsignor James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, whose new St. Teresa of Calcutta Community for Mothers offers one of the most comprehensive support programs for young moms pursuing a college degree.

The rationale for these efforts is the same one motivating pro-life pregnancy centers and the U.S. bishops’ Walking with Moms in Need campaign. “If I’m going to advocate for the protection of unborn lives,” Shea explained, “that means that I’m going to do everything I can to support those lives once they’re born and the women who are generous enough to bring those lives into the fullness of light.”

Survey of Catholic colleges

To better understand what support is available to student mothers pursuing a degree today, EWTN News sent a detailed survey to 64 Catholic colleges and universities across the U.S. and followed up with phone calls and emails over several weeks requesting a response.

In all, 17 out of the 64 or 26.5% of the institutions responded to the survey.

The 17 schools that responded to the survey were: Ave Maria University, in Naples, Florida; Belmont Abbey College, in Belmont, North Carolina; The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.; Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas; Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia; the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio; Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio; Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland; Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania; St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida; St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey; the University of Mary; Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire; the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas; the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana; Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming.

While all 17 schools had policies in place to address immediate housing concerns, fewer had more comprehensive resources in place to assist with childcare, tuition, and other resources. Among the survey’s findings:

  • Fifteen of these 17 schools (88%) allowed pregnant students to remain in the dorms with the remaining two colleges offering off-campus housing options.
  • Seven schools (41%) had specialized housing options to accommodate a pregnant mother or a mother with a young child.
  • Eight schools (47%) offered scholarships solely dedicated to pregnant or parenting students.
  • Eleven schools (64%) had lactation rooms or designated spaces for that purpose.
  • Five schools (29%) offered on-campus childcare.
  • Fourteen schools (82%) had additional campus resources available for pregnant or parenting students, such as expectant mother parking, counseling services, and free baby supplies.

    The MiraVia maternity home next to the campus of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, provides housing and other support to allow young mothers to pursue their college degrees. Courtesy of MiraVia
    The MiraVia maternity home next to the campus of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, provides housing and other support to allow young mothers to pursue their college degrees. Courtesy of MiraVia

The University of Mary, Ave Maria, Belmont Abbey, and The Catholic University of America stood out for broad range of services they offer, the survey found.

The MiraVia maternity home, which opened in 2013 on land donated by Belmont Abbey, is one of the most established programs. To date, the home, located next to the college’s campus, has provided a safe and supportive environment for 60 pregnant and parenting students.

Among them was Ashley Banks, who told EWTN News she was considering aborting her second child before she heard about the program.

“They brought us in, helped me out, not just with the children or with housing but they also helped me to get my education, they helped me to work,” said Banks, who earned an associate degree from Belmont Abbey and found a job with a temporary employment firm.

One potential concern for a student facing an unexpected pregnancy at a Catholic college is the prospect of facing disciplinary action for violating codes of conduct that emphasize chastity. Yet 12 out of responding schools with such codes all said that care and support for the mother and child were the priority in such situations.

“In a sense, that seems obvious, right?” said Jennie Bradley Lichter, Catholic University’s deputy general counsel, told EWTN News. “But in a moment of panic or something that’s experienced as a moment of crisis, we just didn’t want there to be any question in the minds of any student on this campus that they would need to be hesitant to seek help and support from the University for any reason.”

Last year Catholic University has launched a “whole campus effort” called the Guadalupe Project that includes a student-led babysitting network, baby items in the school’s food pantry, and benefits for staff moms such as expanded maternity leave and expectant mother parking.

“We really drilled down on some concrete things that would measurably improve the lives of the moms and dads, and by extension their kids, who are in our campus community,” Lichter said. You can learn more about what Catholic University and the University of Mary are doing to help student moms by watching the EWTN News In Depth video at the end of this story.

Of the 17 schools that responded to the survey, 14 are members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). Before the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling last year, the organization advised member schools to review their policies and services supporting pregnant and parenting students, and many took concrete action.

“Our colleges were looking for ways to demonstrate their Catholic faith, and so many of them added programs and services to support students during pregnancy and through childbirth and the parenting process,” said Rebecca Sawyer, the ACCU’s vice president. Finding funding sources for more comprehensive services, such as childcare on campus, can be a challenge, however, she noted.

In the past year, Benedictine College has expanded maternity benefits for staff and set aside parking spaces for expectant mothers. Franciscan University has designated lactation rooms for nursing mothers. And the University of Dayton created “visual campaigns to increase awareness of support services and to decrease the culture of shame that surrounds unexpected pregnancies,” Crystal Sullivan, executive director of the school’s campus ministry, told EWTN News.

‘You can do this’

While a handful of schools offered student moms on-campus childcare, some reported more informal arrangements. “For those who have needed this extra help, the community has joyfully pitched in to allow new moms to focus on their academics while also raising a little one,” Amanda Graf, vice president of student affairs at Christendom College, wrote in response to the survey.

Other colleges noted that they could refer students to off-campus childcare options, while one school — Wyoming Catholic College — said on-campus childcare was outside of its area of focus.

Not all the schools responding to the survey indicated that they were prioritizing expanding services to student moms. In his response to the survey, William Fahey, president of Thomas More College, said that the school would consider a young mother’s situation as part of its financial aid assessment, but he wrote that it was “unlikely — given the academic rigor of the program — that any women would attempt to finish our degree while caring for a child.”

He added, “Caring for a child is more significant than completing a college degree on a traditional 4-year schedule.”

Mary Wolf, however, credits Ave Maria University’s Compass Care program, which provides free babysitting, financial assistance, and other community support, with helping her graduate with a nursing degree after an unexpected pregnancy during her freshman year.

“As colleges have become more and more secular, they’ve removed this component of community,” she reflected. “When we remove that element then it really does leave these people feeling alone and isolated without any help. And that’s when they feel like their only option is abortion.”

In contrast, she said, pro-life programs like Compass Care show vulnerable pregnant students that “they absolutely can do this” with the proper support.

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  1. Ongoing encouragement to chastity in student newspapers etc would be a good idea. Secondly I did not see adoption mentioned as an option. I am sure many women would choose to retain their child. However for those who feel they cannot, adoption should be discussed. I am a catholic adoptive parent. My oldest son came from the Catholic Home Bureau in NYC. He was very much wanted and loved by us, and was provided every possible advantage. Eventually we adopted a second child as well. Surely adoption is a better fate for a baby than being aborted and this choice should be presented to pregnant young women much more often.

  2. The phrase “unexpected pregnancy” really does need to be stricken from our lexicon.
    Perhaps funding for these programs could come from the fathers of these infants. I grant that is highly unlikely. If the father is a fellow student, then what? Will he also be given assistance, housing accommodations? If not, why not? Will the couple be encouraged to wed?
    By reducing shame surrounding a non-marital pregnancy, the community hope to reduce abortion. That’s good, but is normalizing unwed motherhood an unintended consequence? Is “community support” replacing “family support” and one reason (not the only) for the decline in family formation via marriage?

      • I think everyone here agrees Morgan. But neither should out of wedlock sexual relations be encouraged. There has to be a common meeting place where Christian colleges assist mothers & infants in need & at the same time teach biblical values on marriage & family. I think that can & should be done. It’s not just one or the other.
        We’re all sinners & most of our sins are secret. We only want to condemn those that have become public.

  3. Why is it up to a college to provide any of this? I tend to fall in the camp of the Wyoming school: It’s outside of the school’s focus. A school is to provide an education for those choosing to pursue it. These young women need to realize that with free will comes responsibility, and when you choose to sleep around and get pregnant, your life will be interrupted. The world isn’t going to come to your aid to remedy your mistakes, and the earlier in life they learn that the better. Frankly, they’re not mature enough to be pursuing a degree if they are so distracted by their boyfriends. While I am thoroughly pro-life, this approach seems misguided.

    • Perhaps it’s as much charity for the child as for the mother?
      And it takes two to create a baby. Fathers have the same responsibilities. I’m assuming that in these instances if the father had the best interest of the mother & child he’d be in the picture. But since that doesn’t appear to be the case someone needs to step in to offer help so the mother can pick up the pieces of her life & go forward.
      How many unwed couples contracept & fly under the radar? Do we only punish the women who get caught through procreation? That’s one of the reasons we’ve ended up with feticides & in some terrible cases, infanticides.
      You know when the Erie Canal was dredged a number of infant skeletal remains were found & ditto for the Buffalo, NY sewers. Servant of God Fr. Nelson Baker was inspired by that to open his OLOV foundling home where unwed mothers could anonymously drop off their infants. He was criticized for that also.

      • The com boxes really are not the place for policy discussions I suppose. These stories here and on NCRegister are heart warming. Alas, they do point to a very dark reality: we have had 50 years of Roe, but have made no dent (indeed, I think we are worse off now that we were back in 1973) in the root causes of abortion and unwed motherhood, and all the socio-pycho-patholgies that go with them–fatherless children have much higher rates of poverty and the sexual activity that beget another fatherless generation.
        Ironically, my impression is that video game addiction and porn might have made a bigger dent in abortion/birth rates than the “chastity” or “purity” movement. And when you think about that, that is very, very sad, and a real indictment on the Church’s ability to persuade folks against self/societally destructive sins.

  4. I’d agree Mrs. Hess that men addicted to video games & porn are probably not reproducing themselves in any great numbers.
    And lower rates of teen pregnancy seem closely related to the promotion of long-term contraceptive for young girls ages 12 & up.

  5. Contraception has definitely contributed to a lack of responsibility among our young men, who then in turn have lots of free time to devote to gaming and porn. Combine that with parents who don’t encourage them to get jobs whole still in high school, and it’s little wonder they’re infantilized and held unaccountable for the babies they’ve created. Why should they be responsible? Society has told them for years that contraception and abortion are “women’s health rights.” It’s “not the man’s problem.” Years ago, if a guy knew there was no way out via the shame of “having to make an honest woman” out of the girl he impregnated, he would have thought twice before having sex with her. Abortion exists because of failed contraception. And the existence of contraception leads to irresponsibility.

    Oh how our pastors need to revisit Humanae Vitae!

    • I agree with you Miss Jenny. Women have been sold a bill of goods & men too for that matter. Men need to step up & grow up. And parents need to stop enabling & supporting them to prolong adolescence forever.

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