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TAKING SIDES : Profiles of two women with differing views of sex education and abortion


In many respects, Gwen Lauterbach and Sue Komorowski are strikingly similar. Both are 44, have children and are in long-term marriages. Both are involved in their churches and teach sex education classes in the county. And both have been involved with local activities surrounding the issue of abortion.

But there the similarities end, for Lauterbach and Komorowski represent fundamentally opposing opinions on the best approach to teaching sex-related topics.

Arguments surrounding sex education and abortion are often volatile. So instead of a debate, we decided to present two separate profiles. Here, each woman is allowed to express her attitudes, her ideas and the driving force behind what she does.

Gwen Lauterbach knows that not everyone sees her as doing God's work.

A crowd gathered around her on an Oxnard sidewalk a few years back, calling her a sinner and a baby killer. She gets phone calls, she says, from people accusing her of being a death angel. Tough-talking teen-agers in a high-security detention facility cringed when she talked about sex.

But Lauterbach, mother of four and community educator for Planned Parenthood's Ventura County chapter, doesn't seem very much bothered.

"I think you eventually have to come to a place where you are centered enough within yourself and your beliefs that you don't get affected by everything," she said. "You either have to work through your own conflicts about things, or you have to get to the point where you can live with the conflicts around you."

From all appearances, it is an attitude that has served her well. In addition to her job at Planned Parenthood, Lauterbach is a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. As part of her training, she spent the last several years working in a variety of conflict-filled settings. She has volunteered at a rape crisis center, comforted terminally ill patients and escorted women for abortions at a family-planning clinic.

Although her resume includes teaching sex education at her Oxnard church, it was her skill as a communicator--and her views on sexuality in general--that last year landed her the Planned Parenthood job.

"One of the most important things was that the person be in agreement with Planned Parenthood's goals and objectives," said Barbara Petrich, the organization's tri-county director of education. One of Planned Parenthood's primary missions, she said, is to help people "receive the information and skills they need to live out the sexual part of their lives in healthy, responsible ways."

As the organization's community educator, Lauterbach is called upon to talk to a variety of groups about sexually related issues:

She has explained birth control to high school students throughout the county, discussing both the failure rates of each method and the common reasons why teen-agers feel pressured to have sex before they are emotionally ready.

She has given slide shows on sexually transmitted diseases to incarcerated juveniles at the California Youth Authority in Camarillo.

She has asked parents at PTA meetings to confront their own attitudes about sexuality, telling them that "whether they talk to their kids about sex or not, they are still teaching them something."

In each instance, she said, she presents information in a non-judgmental way that she hopes will allow each person to make a thoughtful decision. In most respects, she said, it is an approach similar to the one she took while teaching sexuality courses in Oxnard.

"The only difference, really, is that the Presbyterian Church has a sexuality awareness course from the Christian standpoint--which is, we believe you should wait for sex until you're married, but also recognize that many kids don't," she said from her small Planned Parenthood office in Ventura.

"As a Planned Parenthood person, though, I'm not here to talk about values," she said. "What I do is give information--as straight as I can--to let others make their own choices. As a chaplain, you are trained not to tell people what to believe, and to deal more with how they feel about the issues in their lives. . . . I try not to confuse God and someone's life."

At 44, married for 27 years, with three of her four children grown, Lauterbach appears comfortable with herself. Her demeanor is relaxed and she is quick to laugh. Dressed on a recent afternoon in a long, flowing skirt and silver peace-sign earrings, she is a woman one imagines might be baking stone-ground wheat bread in the oven of her Oxnard home. "I'm the kind of person who still subscribes to Mother Jones," she said, laughing.

It is hardly a picture many people might conjure of a minister-in-training, preparing to talk to a Sunday parish.

"The common misconception is that a minister is just a public preacher," agreed Steve Shivley, conference program coordinator with the Presbyterian Church Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, a council that represents 310 Presbyterian churches. "But a minister can have a variety of calls. Teaching is just one of them."

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