Catholic Bishops Sharply Attack School Clinics
Washington--The nation's Roman Catholic bishops last week called for the enactment of federal and state laws that would bar school-based health clinics from dispensing contraceptives and providing abortion counseling.
In a strongly worded policy statement adopted unanimously here on Nov. 18, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops argues that the provision of such services is "morally objectionable, and open to question even on practical grounds."
The 26-page document rebuts claims that school-based contraceptive services lower teen-age-pregnancy rates. It urges schools to combat the problem by mobilizing "the inner resources of teen-agers" and teaching "responsible habits of thinking and living" that emphasize sexual abstinence.
"We ask the public schools and other secular institutions not to assume the role of teaching religion," Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago said in presenting the statement, "but to make the case for sexual self-restraint in light of values and benefits that most Americans can appreciate regardless of their denominational belief."
The bishops' statement implores Catholics to "work effectively with other concerned taxpayers in their local communities to promote a morally responsible approach" to the establishment of school-based clinics.
It does not directly oppose clinics that do not provide contraceptives, but says they are at best only a "partial answer" to the health needs of young people.
Proponents of the clinics last week defended the right of local communities to decide such issues independently and questioned the bishops' contention that school-based contraceptive services are not effective in reducing pregnancy.
Agreeing with the bishops that abstinence is "the first line of defense in preventing teen pregnancy," Beth Fouhy, a spokesman for the Center for Population Options, said clinics had been shown to encourage a delay in the initiation of sexual activity.
The bishops' statement, she said, "begs the question, 'Why does the community want a clinic to begin with?' It wants kids to have primary health care."
Recent figures compiled by the organization, she said, show that most teen-agers who visit school-based clinics do so for reasons other than obtaining contraceptive aids or advice. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of the visits involve those services.
On the issue of whether the clinics reduce the incidence of pregnancy, Ms. Fouhy said, "I keep wondering where [the bishops are] getting their data."
A spokesman for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has funded 24 school-based clinics, said the foundation had no comment on the bishops' statement.
Embroiled in Controversy
The document was adopted in a voice vote with no opposition by the more than 270 American bishops attending the annual meeting of the nccb last week.
It had been prompted by a request last year from Bishop Leo Maher of the Diocese of San Diego that the conference provide more guidance on the controversial topic. Like all of the conference's recommendations, the "Statement on School-Based Clinics" is nonbinding.
The document does, however, add the weight of one of the most influ8ential Catholic bodies in the United States to current efforts to defuse the school-clinic movement.
Bishop Maher and several other diocesan leaders, including Cardinal John O'Connor of New York and Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, have opposed the establishment of public-school health clinics in their cities that would provide contraceptives or family-planning counseling.
And last week, Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver urged Catholic parents not to allow their children to use two school-based health clinics that will open soon there, even though they will not dispense contraceptives or offer counseling on abortions.
In a letter read from pulpits in 14 Denver parishes, the archbishop said he opposed the clinics because the guidelines for their operation do not require health-care workers to notify parents of their children's visits.
According to the cpo and other family-planning organizations, more than 100 school-based clinics have been established nationwide, primarily in metropolitan areas.
The bishops' moral critique of the school-based health programs providing contraceptives rests primarily on the fact that such programs "take a promiscuous lifestyle for granted and resort to the deception that premarital sexual activity is without adverse consequences so long as pregnancy is avoided."
Access to contraceptives, the statement says, has not led to reductions in teen-pregnancy rates. The fact that the birth rate among teenagers has fallen, it contends, reflects an increase in abortions.
The clinics violate the rights of parents to oversee the moral and physical development of their children, it says, charging that a primary reason for locating them in schools "is to gain access to teenagers without their parents' involvement."
In particular, it maintains, the role of such clinics in helping pregnant teen-agers obtain abortions shows "little concern for the well-being of the teen-age girl who is persuaded to eliminate her child."
No 'Counsel of Despair'
The bishops sharply criticized a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that "we currently know very little" about how to reduce teen-age sexual activity.
Calling that report a "counsel of despair," the bishops challenged the Academy's suggestion that efforts to teach abstinence will be unsuccessful.
"To despair of improving teen-agers' self-discipline and their hope for the future is to abandon hope not only with regard to the teen-pregnancy problem, but with regard to teen-agers themselves," the bishops wrote.
The bishops rejected an amendment to the statement calling for Catholic schools to develop "positive programs on sex education."
Rather, the statement says that "programs of education in human sexuality which respect parental rights and the need for moral responsibility can have a significant impact on young people's lives" if provided in the "supportive context" of educational, economic, and social initiatives that bolster hope and self-esteem.
The statement acknowledges that the basic health needs of many teen-agers may be met by school-based clinics, but argues that the clinics may divert funds from "more cost-effective initiatives," such as Medicaid.
The document did not directly mention the problem of aids, which conference officials said would be addressed in a separate statement next year.