- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

Sarian Bouma was six months pregnant and worried. An immigrant from Sierra Leone living in the District, she had no health insurance and no guarantee that she would be able to get the medical attention the child inside her needed. She considered the prospect of giving birth in her back yard or, in still darker moments, of committing suicide.
That was 23 years ago. Today Ms. Bouma is a successful entrepreneur, one who is forever grateful to officials at Providence Hospital's Center for Life who took her in when she had no place else to go. They cared for her and the child to whom she gave birth, as they care for hundreds of low-income women every year, and gave her a chance to collect the fragments of her life and fashion it anew. The Center for Life is just one small part of a vast Roman Catholic safety net in the District that provides everything from education to medical care to housing to persons who might not otherwise receive it. "I was looking for a bridge to help me get across, and the center gave me one," she says.
Such help may have been enough for Ms. Bouma but not, alas, for the District City Council. Last week, council members voted unanimously to require that in return for acting so charitably, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington must give away its doctrine too. Specifically, the council demands in complete violation of the church's pro-life, anti-contraceptive teachings that the diocese join other District employers in offering insurance to cover the cost of contraceptives for its employees. That goes for the Little Sisters of the Poor too.
The unspoken threat here? No condoms, no charity. That's not the way proponents of the measure put it, naturally. They want both condoms and charity. What is hoary church doctrine, they wonder, in the face of deadly health risks from which contraceptives can protect them? "Women spend over 20 percent of their life avoiding being pregnant," a spokeswoman for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights told The Washington Post. "Contraception is absolutely basic to women's health care."
Likewise Councilman Jim Graham attacked the church for its backward views. "I spent years in this city fighting and let me mention the Catholic Church by name fighting Church dogma in terms of the availability of condoms in this city which prevented us from having an effective program … for the prevention of the transmission of HIV," he said. It's possible that Mr. Graham may have had more than public health on his mind. He pointedly referred to Pope John Paul II's criticism of a homosexual rally in the Vatican's back yard, Rome a calculated affront to the pope on the order of holding an anti-civil rights demonstration at the headquarters of the NAACP.
Whether handing out condoms to everyone to prevent the transmission of the virus linked to AIDS is sound public policy is a matter for debate. But there is nothing stopping any District employer from providing insurance for contraceptives or even from dispensing them directly to employees by the case. Nor is there anything stopping someone from seeking employment where such "benefits" are available. Mr. Graham wants more. He wants to impose the tenets of his faith on a religious institution that happens to disagree. He and his colleagues are betting, paradoxically, that the church is too committed to its good works in the District to stop offering them.
Ms. Bouma's case is just one small example of those works. The Center for Life helped see that she got the care she and her son needed. That son, Dominic, is now a student at Penn State. She is married with three more children and the owner of a janitorial services firm with some 150 full- and part-time employees. Every year, she says, she returns to the Center for Life on her son's birthday and makes a contribution to help others get the same opportunity she did.
If her story is moving, the contributions of the archdiocese as a whole are staggering, perhaps greater even than those of Mr. Graham and his colleagues. Catholic Charities alone provides assistance to 80,000 in the region annually. Just one of those charities, the Archdiocesan Health Care Network provides $2 million in free medical care to 3,500 people annually. The Spanish Catholic Center provides aid to 36,000 low-income Spanish-speaking people in D.C. and Montgomery County each year. The archdiocese's mental health program serves roughly 900 persons with psychiatric disabilities each year.
There is another notable service the archdiocese offers: a coalition of parish-based AIDS ministries known as D.C. Catholic AIDS Network. The archdiocese has held day-long training sessions for its clergy on how to establish and operate such a ministry, which might involve taking food to persons who can't cook themselves, simply listening to AIDS victims, holding prayer vigils and "healing services" for them and making sure they know they are welcome in the parish. "The love of Christ excludes no one," one priest told the Catholic Standard.
The comments of D.C. Council officials and activists notwithstanding, these are not the acts of homophobes and misogynists. By imposing their creed on the archdiocese, Mr. Graham and friends are the ones threatening exclusion. If they succeed, the district, AIDS victims and the Sarian Boumas of D.C. would be worse for it.
E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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