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The Bishops and the Clinics

November 20, 1987

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to undertake a campaign to outlaw school health clinics that offer birth control and abortion information. The prelates have concluded that any positive effects the clinics may have on the well-being of adolescents is outweighed by the risk that they will reinforce "self-destructive behavior patterns."

We think the bishops have made a grave error.

One of their arguments is that school-based clinics violate the parent-child relationship. The school clinics we know about require parental consent.

The consent issue notwithstanding, we know many parents with a close and trusting relationship with their children who also recognize the utility of having professional health-care providers available at school to respond to the needs and questions of their children.

Another of the bishops' arguments is that the availability of information, or of contraceptives, would only encourage sexual activity. The evidence is to the contrary. There is convincing research demonstrating that adolescents who are informed about and with access to contraception are no more sexually active than those left in ignorance. Instruction about the perils of AIDS would be meaningless without a clear understanding about the limited but useful role that condoms can play for those who do not accept abstinence as a solution.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in presenting the statement of opposition to school-based clinics, asserted that the clinics "take a sexually promiscuous life style for granted." That sort of tendentious statement can only divert attention from the real problem: An increasing number of young people in the United States are sexually active, and that activity is beginning at a younger age. The need for information and help is made all the more urgent by the rising incidence of both teen-age pregnancy and AIDS.

The bishops themselves acknowledged the depth of the problem by calling for expansion of education on sexuality and family life. That is a fine and welcome commitment. It is certainly an appropriate goal for the bishops, even as they have every right to urge sexual abstinence upon the faithful. But we think it grossly unrealistic to seek to eliminate for all students access to information that may help bring under control the extraordinary increase in teen-age pregnancies and may help to protect them from infectious disease, including AIDS.

Health clinics are an appropriate service for the nation's secondary schools. They are not there to hand out condoms on an indiscriminate basis or to railroad youngsters into abortion mills. They are there to respond to the total health needs of students, and it is obvious that the needs associated with sexuality are an essential element of that total service.

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