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When the Family Fails, Schools Must Step In

November 11, 1986|DONALD E. MILLER | Donald E. Miller is the director of the school of religion at USC

Archbishop Roger M. Mahony recently issued a four-page pastoral letter challenging the appropriateness of instituting health clinics at four Los Angeles high schools.

He believes that these clinics, which would provide students with birth-control counseling and contraceptives, will legitimize premarital sex among teen-agers. He argues that health clinics will drive a wedge between parents and children by enabling students to make independent judgments about their sexual practices. He thinks that clinics will make teen-agers less responsible. And, of course, he fears that not only will artificial means of contraception be advocated but that abortion will be posed forcefully as an alternative.

The health-clinic issue raises many questions, including the appropriateness of the archbishop's pronouncement against them. Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg responded to the charges by saying that "they (the Roman Catholic Church) have their own schools to run, and they don't have to take our advice and we don't have to take theirs." Board member Roberta Weintraub has challenged the archbishop to a debate.

I believe that Mahony has the right to address issues that extend beyond the province of the Catholic Church. In fact, I believe that it is the obligation of the clergy to address the moral dimensions of all social policy decisions. If religion deals not only with the divine-human encounter but also with the quality of life for all persons --which I believe that it does--then the religious voice is appropriately present in national debates (as in the American bishops' pastoral letters on nuclear weapons and the economy) as well as in local debates about health clinics on our school campuses. The sacred and secular are not two isolated spheres; good theology sees them as always interpenetrating, one illumining the other.

There is, however, more than one religious voice to be heard on the issue of health clinics in the schools. While I appreciate the arguments being made by the archbishop, the current crisis leads me to believe that health clinics are an appropriate compromise response to the 1 million teen-age pregnancies that occur yearly--75% of which are unintended, according to the Children's Defense Fund.

I view health clinics as a compromise response because if parents were doing a better job of supervising their children and teaching them the religious values that Mahony proclaims, we would not have a situation in which half of all teen-agers are sexually active.

But the fact is that sexual activity among adolescents increased by two-thirds between 1970 and 1980, and this increase is accounted for almost entirely by unmarried white women. Furthermore, the average teen-ager is sexually active for nine months before seeking contraceptive advice.

And according to ChildWatch, a Los Angeles-based group, it is a myth that teen-age pregnancy is a serious problem only among Latinos and blacks. As documented by a study done in 1981 by the California Senate Office of Research, 48% of known teen-age pregnancies were among Anglos.

It is in the face of the failure of the American family that school boards across the nation are proposing health clinics. While Mahony expresses a legitimate concern about health clinics usurping a parental function, the opposing argument is that when parents are not exercising their role, the schools are morally obligated to expand their mandate.

It would be wrong to think that the archbishop is the only one worried about family life. The primary argument for health clinics is to assist young people in getting a better start as parents. In 1982 half of all teen-age births were to single mothers. It is difficult to imagine that many of these children are getting a very good beginning in life, especially when we know that half of female-headed households with mothers under 25 years of age have incomes below the poverty level.

Health clinics are not the entire answer, however. As the Children's Defense Fund has noted: "The best contraceptive is a real future." Full wombs among unwed teens are symptomatic of empty hearts and failed aspirations. A health clinic can operate for a mere $500,000 a year. The challenge of providing teen-agers with a viable future and a reason to postpone the impulse of the moment is a much more difficult task.

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