The Case Against School-Based Clinics

Let me start by telling a story. I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I lived before coming to Washington. Chapel Hill is a fairly typical up-and-coming community. I think it would be fair to call parts of Chapel Hill a home of Yuppiedom — very successful, wealthy young professionals on the way up. Many people there have positions at the University of North Carolina, Duke, or the Research Triangle Park or are doctors, lawyers, and the like. A great premium in such a community is set on education. At a cocktail party one night — at this time I was the Director of the National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park — I was talking with a young couple in their early thirties about various things. It came up that I was a Catholic, and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes I was kidded (I call this good-natured Catholic bashing) by this couple, who were asking questions like this: How can your church really continue to exist in times like these when the rules have changed so dramatically? How can you have such a medieval approach? I think they used the modifier “medieval” about eight times, as a pejorative of course. Did I really believe in hell, did I believe the devil is somebody? (You bet I do; more and more all the time!)

It was clear that, while they were good-natured, this couple had no great sympathy for the teachings by which I was raised. We then turned to education. About ten minutes into this conversation it turns out that this couple has enrolled their two children in a Catholic school. Why? Let me paraphrase what the husband/father said: “We don’t believe a lot of this stuff, but we’d like somebody to make the case to our kids. We can’t do it with an entirely clear conscience and a straight face, but we would like to hear some responsible adults make some arguments to our children about how they should behave, what they should do, and how they should think of themselves. We’re not sure we can do it.”

It was an interesting concession, I thought. Indeed, when one talks about the care and education of one’s children, one is talking about a very large part of one’s responsibility as a parent. And this pair of parents had decided that whatever their views, they wanted their children exposed to what they would have called “the Catholic view of things.” Not in the hope that their children would become Catholics, but that they would understand that in this Church certain arguments, certain principles, and certain perspectives were offered, and they wanted their children to hear them.

We will let that story be the context for the rest of my remarks about birth control clinics and the like. I’ve been on record against the establishment of birth control clinics in our schools, and I have said I am opposed to them for a number of reasons — which are principally these:

First, I do not think they have anything to do with what school is for. I think school is principally for math, English, history and science, and the development of one’s character. We should not crowd into school too many things which are not essential and leave out what is essential. The spirit of this thought was caught recently in a cartoon in the Phi Delta Kappan, the magazine of record in American education. There was a building in the background with a sign in front of it saying “Johnson High School — Driver Education, Birth Control Education and Birth Control Clinic and Interpersonal Advice,” and down below in small print, “Math, History, English and Science offered as well.” This cartoon sends a signal as to what school is about. As a rule — one of “Bennett’s rules” — if another institution can do a task just as well, or if it can be done elsewhere and there is no particular appropriate reason for the school to do it, let it be done elsewhere because there is a lot that school has to do.

My second reason for opposing the establishment of birth control clinics in schools is this: their establishment sends the wrong message to children by suggesting that adults regard the kind of activity that would lead one to go to a birth control clinic as either inevitable or ordinary, or not particularly out of the ordinary. It therefore gives a kind of (perhaps unwitting) legitimacy to sexual activity on the part of teenagers.

Third, we need to be conscious of protecting those children whose minds and attention have not yet turned to the question of sexual intimacy. There is still a large number of young people at that stage, and we need to protect them from “peer pressure.” Once such a clinic is established in the school, I think those children who are operating out of a code of chastity or modesty are going to be made to feel left out.

Finally, I’ve argued that there are certain kinds of things that adults are not allowed to do in the presence of the young, and one of them is to declare moral sur¬render. The establishment of these clinics in the schools says, in effect: “We give up. There is nothing we can do about this. We cannot discourage you from this be¬havior any more. So here, take these birth control devices and limit the damage you’re doing.”

It strikes me as unusual, but interesting, that we talk about the public schools having great regard and respect for the private, personal, and religious beliefs of their students, while they so recklessly intrude into the rights of Catholics and their children who indeed are subject to certain teachings and many of whom embrace those teachings about birth control and the like. If Catholics were some small sect out of the mainstream of religious belief and the schools were doing something to offend the religious beliefs of that group, I imagine we would hear more of a ruckus from the public school establishment. But it being Catholicism, and people in some quarters being used to beating up on Catholics already on abortion and related issues, this intrusion seems in many places to have gone into effect without regard for the particular beliefs of Catholics.

One hears it argued that our children are sexually active anyway. Yet as best we can estimate it, about half of our teenage girls are not sexually active, that is, up to age 18 or so. Further, in the latest report called Risking the Future, by the National Research Council- -a report by the way, which recommends the establishment of birth control clinics — the definition of being “sexually active” is to have engaged in at least one act of sexual intercourse within the last year. That seems an odd definition of “sexually active.” I don’t want to get into theological disputes here, but it does seem to me that if one takes this as the index of sexual activity, one gets a very different sense of the number of sexually active teenagers than if one were talking of extreme promiscuity.

Again, a notion which seems to me implied in the arguments of many in this area, namely, that you simply cannot do anything to alter children’s behavior. That, I think, is patently false. The National Research Council itself says that the most important determinant of a child’s sexual activity is the child’s inner compass: the child’s values, the child’s aspirations for himself or herself, essentially the child’s moral view of himself or herself. Is it possible to affect the child’s moral view of himself or herself? Not only the Catholic Church, but, I think, also several thousand years of educators, have proceeded in their work on the belief that it is possible to help form young people’s views of themselves. I think some success can be claimed for this effort.

One of the terms I would like to reintroduce into this discussion is “modesty.” Modesty is a virtue one rarely hears talked about these days, and I think that young people, particularly young women, need to be encouraged in this. What strikes one from where I sit and from the documents I read is that there seems to be insufficient effort on the part of many — both sex education professionals and those who advocate birth control clinics — to encourage modesty.

In a speech I gave on sex education a few weeks ago, I cited a story from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where a number of pregnant teenage girls have gone for counseling. In a series of interviews with those girls, nine out of ten said that no one had ever stressed why they should say “no” to sexual intimacy, or emphasized why they should be encouraged in their modesty. They did not feel they were getting any clear message of that sort. Instead they were getting mostly a view that talked about their “options” — and that advice was decidedly neutral. Modesty may be a useful term for our discussion. I find that many young women and young men I see in schools around the country are modest. Many of them are modest even underneath an exterior show of forwardness and an attempt to act as if they were older.

When claims are made, then, about the effectiveness of birth control clinics in responding to the problem of teenage pregnancy and the like, always be sure, if you’re engaged in the debate, to get all of the information. A number of times we’ve seen reports where the claims made about the effectiveness of birth control clinics are nothing more than claims about the smaller number of live births in a certain population. But those are not the only relevant numbers. One wants to know not just how many live births there were five years ago and how many live births there are now. One also wants to know how many abortions there have been, how many miscarriages, and what is the effect of such clinics on children’s behavior.

On this point I would refer you to the scholarly work of Allan Carlson at the Rockford Institute, and Professors Olson and Weed. Allan Carlson has tracked this about as well as anyone. What Carlson argues — and his data seem to hold up — is that what you tend to see with the establishment of clinics is indeed, in many cases, a decrease in the number of live births in a certain population. But that is preceded by an increase in the amount of sexual activity of the children in question, an increase in the number of pregnancies, and a dramatic increase in the number of abortions, after which the net result may be a decrease in live births. All of those figures have to be looked at and studied.

The battle between contending parties on this issue has taken place in many communities. The com-munities we are most familiar with are in our inner cities, and it has been very interesting that we have found our strongest support coming from urban black Protestant churches. We have found that the mail we receive from ministers of those churches and other spokespersons for the religious black community in Chicago, Newark, and other places has been the closest to our view of things. For this we have been grateful. I was also grateful to see a column in the Washington Post by Eunice Kennedy Shriver on this topic. She talks of the responsibility to form character in the school — the school can form character. What adults do and what they say to young people does make a difference. I am impressed with that, and she’s a very good ally to have politically. I have heard comments in Washington that it makes for a very interesting situation when the Secretary of Education of the Reagan Administration finds strong support from one of the Kennedys and from the black churches. This is an interesting alignment, and in some ways, I think, an alignment that was there all along.

Some adults may themselves be ambivalent about the role that morality plays or should play in their own lives. But I have found, by and large, that adults are not so ambivalent about the role morality should play in the lives of their children. It is not that every parent is a Catholic. But when it comes to children, parents overwhelmingly want them to be given a responsible moral message. Many hope that someone will give it. Many are prepared to give it themselves, but they would like help from others in doing it.

It is not my business to tell the Catholic Church what it should do, and I do know about the First Amendment, but just a thought: Inner-city parochial schools have found themselves, despite financial difficulty and other problems, able to undertake an educational mission of no small importance: educating the children of the poor. Similarly, I wonder if the Church might take it upon itself to have another mission, a moral mission, for the moral education of the children of any of us.

I wonder how such efforts on the part of the Church I might be started and would be greeted. My guess is that there would be some enthusiasm for them. It strikes me as interesting when I go into the inner-city, into parochial schools, and see the large percentage of children who are not Catholic. I am very proud of the Catholic Church in that it doesn’t distinguish between non-Catholics and Catholics, that it feels it has a responsibility to educate all of the children who come to its doors. I wonder if the same kind of effort might be undertaken in regard to moral education. People are looking for this kind of guidance, particularly when it comes to the moral education of their children. They may not be looking for it for themselves, but I am convinced they are looking for it for their children. And one hopes, or at least I suggest, that the Church may want to increase its efforts in this regard.

Now candor requires me to make just one more comment about schools. I have to tell just one more story. It is true that most of these children in the inner- city Catholic schools begin their career in Catholic schools not as Catholics. But I’m curious to see the data as to how many leave and become Catholics. I said this the other day to Senator Barbara Mikulski, and she said that the schools were not trying to make Catholics, they were trying to make Democrats. I had to concede that her observation might be fair, because it was a full six years after I left Catholic schools that I learned that if you were a Catholic, you didn’t have to be a Democrat.


  • William J. Bennett

    William J. Bennett is an American conservative pundit, politician, and political theorist. He served as United States Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush. In 2000, he co-founded K12, a for-profit online education corporation which is publicly traded.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...