"How many abortions do you perform? How many?" a man shouted at Gail Frances last week, his face reddening with each word.
"One hundred a year," she replied, then continued explaining to community leaders her plan to dispense free birth control devices near three Northern Virginia high schools.
Frances is used to hecklers and hate mail. For more than a decade, she has been at the center of controversy in the Washington area over abortion and birth control.
She founded the first abortion clinic in Virginia and is president of the Annandale Women's Center in Alexandria, which recently started dispensing free birth control devices, and plans to open three more free clinics. In 1984, a Wheaton, Md., clinic where she was a part owner was gutted by a bomb blast. She is also part owner of the Cygma Health Center in Kensington.
"Why do I do it?" she asked. "It came to me in college, a Catholic college in upstate New York. I was a nursing student. Friends went out of the country to get an abortion because it was illegal . . . . They asked me for help and I didn't know what to tell them."
Although many local health and elected officials say they remember the protests, sit-ins and arrests at the Northern Virginia Medical Center that Frances founded in 1973, they can't describe her.
A short woman, with eyes the color of milk chocolate and hair a bit darker, Frances is soft-spoken. She seems as uncontentious as a Girl Scout leader.
Sipping a diet cola in her Duke Street office last week, she talked about growing up outside Chicago as one of 10 children in an Italian Catholic family. "You know how it is when they go though five names before they get yours right."
She said she occasionally attends Sunday Mass, and knows many Catholics who commend her work. "I think my mom supports it," she added.
Frances, 40 years old and the mother of two young children by her second husband, said she knew early that she didn't want to have children until her late thirties. Concerned that they might be harassed, she refused to divulge the first names of her family members. Her husband, she said, is in construction management. She said she never had an abortion, "but I would if I had to."
"She really understands that we are talking about young women's lives," said Dixie Lee Johnson, president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women. "She sees reality as it is and has courage, guts and gumption."
Cynthia Ballentine, a member of the Alexandria Youth Commission, supports Frances' plan to set up health clinics near high schools to dispense free birth control. "We can't bury our heads in the sand. Teen-agers will engage in sexual activity and it's up to responsible citizens to do what they can that will help them be responsible."
Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. said she is "meeting an urgent need in the city."
William P. Morrogh, acting president of Right to Life's Northern Virginia chapter, argues the way to curb teen-age pregnancy is to teach students to say "no." He said he is opposed to Frances' efforts to encourage the use of birth control, "because it sets an extremely bad example for children. It's saying premarital sex is fine as long as you don't get pregnant."
Father Alan Lee, associate pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Annandale, said for at least the last three years parishioners have protested the abortion clinic Frances opened near the church.
"It's just a small, silent group that demonstrates every Saturday," the priest said. "We're totally against what she's doing, both the abortion [clinics] and the birth control clinics, because it doesn't deal with the root cause of teen-age pregnancy, the breakdown of morals."
Many are skeptical that Frances, who says she is not wealthy, will be able to keep three free clinics open. The clinics are to provide not only birth control devices and counseling free of charge, but pregnancy testing, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, physical examinations for sports and other common health ailments. Abortions will not be conducted at the clinics.
"I just don't quite understand it," said Lou Cook, chairman of the Alexandria School Board. "Who's going to pay for the pills, the insurance?"
Others have noted that many nonprofit groups provide medical services according to a person's ability to pay and still run into financial difficulty. They wonder if she will turn what is first a free clinic into a for-profit business.
Frances said people already have offered to donate office space for two of the three clinics, which would be near T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Wakefield in Arlington and Woodson in Fairfax. Local doctors and nurses have volunteered, residents have pledged to contribute thousands of dollars and manufacturers have contributed supplies, she said.
If the Annandale Women's Center, a for-profit organization, opens a nonprofit affiliate, she predicted, more people would donate money because it would be tax deductible.
"The alternative costs are far higher," she said. According to the Center for Population Options, teen-age pregnancy costs the public $16 billion a year, including welfare, Medicaid and food stamps.
Susan Emquist, an Alexandria nurse who attended last week's community meeting, has offered her services. "I worked with teen-agers and I think there is a lot of screaming out for guidance and assistance."
Nationally, more than 1 million teen-agers get pregnant each year, and half get abortions, according to the Center for Population Options. In 1984, 1,537 teen-agers reported getting pregnant in Fairfax, 350 in Alexandria, and 301 in Arlington, according to the Virginia Center for Health Statistics.
After witnessing tens of thousands of abortions in the many local clinics she has worked in since the Supreme Court legalized certain abortions in 1973, Frances said the experience has drained her. Now, as she gets older and spends more time with her children, she wants to concentrate on avoiding pregnancies and educating parents.
"The women who come to have abortions are not fooling themselves. They know they're not simply getting tissue cut out . . . it's going to be a human being if we don't abort it . . . but I simply can't sit in judgment on another person's life."