When the Pregnancy Aid Center opened in College Park more than 25 years ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington embraced the nonsectarian clinic that helped women carry unexpected pregnancies to term. The church raised funds for the clinic and contributed an annual stipend to help pay for a director.
But in recent years, the center, which still supports women who want to have their babies, began providing contraceptives -- a move that has led to a painful parting of the ways. In July, the archdiocese's newsletter urged priests and parishes "to end financial and other support" for the clinic, after concluding, a spokeswoman said, that it no longer shares "the church's views on sexuality and the dignity of human life." The announcement also made the controversial claim that one contraceptive offered at the clinic could cause abortions.
The impact was immediate. Food donations declined dramatically as several parishes and the local Knights of Columbus broke longstanding ties. And a direct-mail solicitation by the clinic, whose Catholic director and network of volunteers serve 2,800 low-income and medically uninsured women, netted half the amount collected in 1998 -- worrisome for a nonprofit dependent on contributions for about 20 percent of its budget.
"For 25 years, we had a pro-life image in the community and were considered a very valuable group because we were quick to respond to the community's needs," said clinic Director Mary Jelacic, who made fund-raising appearances with Cardinal James A. Hickey in happier times. "Just because we give out birth control doesn't mean we're not pro-life [but] our church cannot see that anymore."
The clash provides a local, close-up view of the divisions over birth control among Catholics, at least 73 percent of whom disagree with the church's ban on contraception, according to surveys. At a time when politicians are urging faith communities to get more involved in social services, it also illustrates the difficulties that can arise between nonsectarian groups and religious institutions.
Tom Grenchik, who heads the archdiocese's Pro-Life Office, said the church "has the right to work with those groups which share its teachings." While the center has done "a lot of good things, we see its decision to take a contraceptive approach to sexuality as a bad thing. We would rather work with groups we can agree with all across the board."
Other Catholics said they were surprised at the breadth of the archdiocesan directive because it undermined the clinic's badly needed services, which include distributing food, clothing, diapers and cribs to new mothers.
"They have gone too far to send out a message to women's groups in parishes that they should not give this most necessary help to pregnant women and their children," said Sister Miriam Bauerlin, a 74-year-old nun and nurse in Suitland who refers needy women to the clinic. "It's hurtful."
Robert Hoffman, a Catholic who is president of the clinic's board, doesn't quarrel with the archdiocese's right to publicize its disapproval. But its statement, he said, particularly the assertion that the clinic provides an abortion-causing contraceptive, appeared to be aimed at damaging the center's reputation.
Church officials argue that the contraceptive, Depo-Provera, prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. Archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said Depo-Provera causes "an early form of abortion because life begins at conception."
The center found no medical evidence that Depo-Provera causes abortions, said Hoffman, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who said the "false allegation is designed to drive individual Catholic donors away from us."
It's hard being in the middle, he said, reflecting the sentiments of many Catholics who work with society's underprivileged. "We're willing to dispense contraceptives, which offends the Catholic Church and . . . the whole right-to-life movement. But we are opposed to abortion and therefore offend the pro-choice people. Yet our choice is probably closer to the majority of Americans."
Such controversy was unknown to the Pregnancy Aid Center when it opened shortly after the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The archdiocese supported it from the start and, in 1980, donated $5,000 -- the first of several annual stipends -- to hire Jelacic, a clinical social worker, as the center's part-time director.
Under Jelacic, now 42 and making $49,000 a year as full-time director, the center expanded into prenatal, postnatal and, in 1997, general health care. It is one of only two nongovernment clinics in Prince George's County that accept clients with no health insurance. And unlike most crisis pregnancy centers, which only do testing and counseling, its medical staff has two volunteer physicians, a nurse midwife and a nurse practitioner provided under a longtime agreement with Georgetown University's School of Nursing.
In a county where the 1997 infant mortality rate was 11.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, higher than the national rate of 7.2 deaths, the clinic's services are seen as essential. Most of its patients arrive by bus at the center, in a yellow clapboard house on Greenbelt Road. Many are undocumented immigrants and about 40 percent are Catholic. The staff includes a Muslim, a Jew, a Methodist and a Baptist.
According to a 1997 audit, the center's $228,700 budget was funded mainly by Medicaid ($85,036); contributions from individual Catholics and local parishes ($47,615); and grants from private foundations ($46,750). It also has received money from the Philip L. Graham Fund.
Over time, however, the center's relationship with the archdiocese began to sour. In 1996, the archdiocese's Pro-Life Office sought a pledge that the center would not offer contraception or information about it. Jelacic couldn't comply, she said, because some medical staff had begun providing birth control to patients requesting it. She stopped applying for the church stipend.
A more bruising crisis erupted a year later when the center approved a formal policy -- partly because it is required by Medicaid -- that it would offer information about contraception if women asked. It also decided to provide two types of birth control: pills and Depo-Provera injections. Nearly half of the clinic's predominantly Catholic board resigned in protest.
In 1998, the Pro-Life Office dropped the clinic from a church-approved list of crisis pregnancy centers. Catholic organizations like Gabriel Project and the St. Vincent de Paul Society refused to refer pregnant women to it and parishes shunned requests for funding. Last April, it was removed from a pro-life hot line.
Then, in its July newsletter to clergy and parishes, the archdiocese called for a halt to all aid because, Gibbs said, "some parishes continued to support the center under the impression it was consistent with Catholic teaching." The archdiocese, she added, prefers that Catholics give their "financial and material support" to 15 other organizations that serve low-income women and "whose vision and mission" match the church's.
Pastors of three parishes that withdrew support did not respond to requests for interviews. But Grand Knight William E. Gallagher, of Knights of Columbus Council No. 2809, said his group ceased monthly food deliveries "lest we Catholic men be put in a position of supporting [contraception], which we do not, of course."
Other Catholics have continued working with the center. "The only difference now is we cannot use the resources of our parish to get contributions," said Annette M. Wasno, one of about 10 women who belong to St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Beltsville and who collect food and toys, wash second-hand baby clothes, knit afghans and provide transportation.
While respecting the archdiocese's position, the mother of two said, "I find it too difficult to say I'm not going to support the women the way I have in the past."
These days, patients at the center who seek birth control information are given a sheet with 10 options, including the only one approved by the church: abstention from intercourse during a woman's fertile period.
Many Catholics, including Sister Miriam, would like to see this teaching changed. "But I don't have any control over that," she said. "All I do is pray about that. And make comments when I can."
Jelacic, who is married with four daughters and attends Mass regularly, has borne the emotional brunt of the controversy. "It's very painful to be cut off from one's own church," she said, noting that she has fielded messages from angry Catholics telling her to "mend her ways."
But Jelacic identifies with her clients: her grandmother struggled to support eight children after being widowed at 32; her mother had seven pregnancies in seven years. She doesn't want to enforce "my Catholicity" on others.
"When I go into a woman's house and she has five children and the refrigerator has just a half-gallon of milk in it," she said, "I'm pretty hard-pressed to say to her, if she doesn't want any more children, that we can't help her."