Are school-based birth control clinics a good idea?

Some people seem so cocksure that they know the answer that my own doubts come off as hopelessly weak-kneed.

Try this: a high school principal tells his assembled students that shoplifting is risky, both for its moral implication and because of the prospect of jail, and he wishes they wouldn't do it. "But if you think you might shoplift anyhow, we have a visiting team of experts in Room 301 who will tell you how to avoid getting caught."

The analogy will outrage proponents of school- based birth control clinics. Shoplifting is not a "natural" act, they will insist, and besides it's illegal. Sex is not a criminal question but a religious and moral one, and notions of right and wrong are outside the purview of the public schools.

They are correct. But there is another point to the analogy: what would be the predictable result of a how-not-to-get-caught-shoplifting seminar? How seriously would students take the principal's admonition not to shoplift?

The theory behind the high school sex clinics is that because many of the youngsters are going to be sexually active anyway, prudence demands that we help them avoid the devastating consequences of their activity.

It's all very well to preach abstinence, theory goes, but real-world considerations warrant teaching teen-agers the facts of contraception and, where the problem is most severe, giving them the means of contraception. The watchword of this view is: let's be practical.

Secretary of Education William Bennett is an eloquent spokesman for the opposite view. School-based birth control clinics, he told a recent Baltimore meeting of the Education Writers Association, constitute an "abdication of moral authority" and are, on that account, a rotten idea.

"Birth control clinics in school may prevent some births," he said. "That I won't deny. The question is, what does it teach? What lessons does it teach? What attitudes does it encourage? What behaviors does it foster?

"I believe that there are certain kinds of surrender that adults may not declare in the presence of the young. One such surrender is the abdication of moral authority. Schools are the last place that that should happen."

Bennett's questions recall similar misgivings voiced last December when the D.C. public schools proposed to open a "comprehensive health clinic" at Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington. That clinic, according to the proposal, would not necessarily dispense contraceptives, but it would refer students to clinics where they could be obtained and also make referrals for abortion.

The Rev. Willie Wilson, whose Anacostia church runs one of the city's best youth programs, was aghast at the idea. "Overall health care is positive," he said, "but providing contraceptives of any sort condones what we know to be the spirit of the times, which is one of free sex. Contraceptives will not solve the problem. It may even expand the problem."

Which view makes more sense: pragmatism in the face of a serious national problem or an effort to hold fast to basic moral standards?

A similar question arose some months ago when a California agency, reacting to the AIDS epidemic, printed instructions to teach drug addicts the proper methods of injecting heroin in order to avoid AIDS contamination. The most notable reaction was one of outrage at teaching junkies how to do something that everybody agreed they were better off not doing.

If that was the view with drug abusers, most of whom are adult, what should be our view when it comes to sex and children?

The assumption, on the part of those who circulated the narcotics-use instructions, was that junkies are going to be junkies, and we might as well help them to avoid one of the more terrifying consequences of their drug abuse.

Are we ready to make a similar assumption when it comes to sexual activity among teen- agers? Are we prepared to concede that they will do things that we know -- pragmatic consequences notwithstanding -- not to be in their best interest?

Well, some of us aren't. Some of us will insist, with Bennett and Wilson, that when it comes to sex, the only acceptable instruction the adults can offer to adolescents is: Don't.