The rise of family-planning clinics located in or near America’s high schools is a source of growing concern among parents and educators alike. But a clinic that dispenses contraceptives to students from T. C. Williams High School has taken the practice a step further—it operates out of a church.
The Fairlington Teen Health Center in Alexandria, Virginia, provides free pregnancy tests, birth-control devices, and abortion referrals. Gail Frances, a registered nurse, opened the nonprofit clinic last year at Fairlington United Methodist Church. Set up in a former Sunday school classroom, the clinic is visited by as many as six girls a day.
Frances, a Roman Catholic who founded the first abortion clinic in Virginia, is part-owner of one family-planning and abortion clinic and president of another, the Annandale Women’s Center. “I think what we’re doing [at the Fairlington clinic] is a very Christian and a very meaningful outreach to the kids,” she said. “I think it belongs in the church.”
In addition to offering contraceptives, the Fairlington clinic provides sports exams, nutritional information, and routine lab tests. However, 60 percent of its services involve contraception. If a test indicates a girl is pregnant, Frances said, the girl is asked how she wants to handle the situation. If she says she wants an abortion, the girl is told about several area clinics, including Frances’s own Annandale Women’s Center. Parents are not notified if their daughter plans to obtain an abortion.
Fairlington United Methodist Church is one of only two churches known to have opened their doors to clinics that provide students with contraceptives and abortion referrals. The other is Union Avenue Methodist Church in Alliance, Ohio, where a Planned Parenthood clinic serves students from the nearby United Methodist-related Mount Union College.
Fairlington United Methodist Church pastor Emmett Cocke is an advocate of a woman’s right to abortion. In 1983, he filed suit against the Reagan administration’s implementation of the Adolescent Family Life Act, in part because the law prohibits counseling on abortion.
When the church’s administrative board considered the Fairlington Teen Health Center proposal, the 35 board members cast no dissenting votes, although several abstained. Denominational officials were not informed prior to the clinic’s opening.
Cocke told the church board there was “nothing about the clinic that would violate the provisions of the United Methodist Church Discipline.” The denomination’s statement on abortion says in part that “a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.” Cocke said he has made professional church workers available should any student seek advice. However, students who visit the clinic are not told that clergy counseling is available.
Because it serves high school students, and because it is based in a church, the Fairlington clinic is opposed by national profamily organizations and by a neighboring Presbyterian church. Fairlington Presbyterian Church broke off all joint activities with Fairlington United Methodist Church. In a letter, the Presbyterian congregation wrote: “The clinic within your church premises sends a message to the teenagers of Alexandria that the Church of Jesus Christ condones both premarital sexual intimacy and abortion.… The moral crisis precipitated by the widespread practice of sexual promiscuity must be addressed by the Church, but not in the way you have chosen.”
Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, and the Committee to Protect the Family also have spoken out against the church-based clinic. The Committee to Protect the Family sent a letter to persons on the Methodist church’s mailing list. “We believed there were many church members who didn’t know about the clinic coming in until it was too late—or simply didn’t know,” said George Tryfiates, the organization’s director of government affairs. Some parishioners wrote back saying they would leave the church, he said, but most said they approved of the clinic.
Helen Blackwell, Virginia representative of Eagle Forum, said she has met with the Committee to Protect the Family and a local pastor to plan ways “to encourage parents in the area to organize to discourage use of the clinic.”
Olga Fairfax, president of Methodists United for Life, said the birth-control aspects of the clinic have “no biblical basis. The Bible says we are to flee from fornication. This church is encouraging it.…”
By Steven Paul Wissler.
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