A Tri-City area women's organization, which has donated more than $2 million to local nonprofits, is facing criticism for helping a pregnancy clinic that has strong ties to the anti-abortion movement.

For the past 40 years, the Candle Lighters has held a Halloween haunted house in Fremont and used the proceeds to support local nonprofits.

The 125-member volunteer organization steers clear from hot-button political issues, and traditionally, so do its recipients.

This year, the group funded programs requested by Robertson High School, Math Science Nucleus, Rancho Higuera Restoration Committee, Fremont Symphony Orchestra, Tri-City Volunteers, Music for Minors II, LIFE Elder Care and the Booklegger Program.

But among the nine beneficiaries, sharing more than $40,000, is Union City—based Pregnancy Choices Clinic, a licensed medical facility whose stated mission is "helping families choose life."

"I would sure not like to see my money go there," said Fremont resident and Alameda County Deputy Public Defender Pauline Weaver. "It does surprise me that the Candle Lighters would jump with two feet into the political arena when they don't have to."

Sybil Smith, a Fremont member of the League of Women Voters, said the Candle Lighters' donation would preclude her from joining the group.

"I'm not comfortable with it," she said. "It feels to me like they're taking a side."


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However, Candle Lighters members note that the $3,095 contribution — less than one-tenth of the money they disbursed — went to buy parenting education DVDs and workbooks for women who already have decided not to have an abortion.

"We're buying materials," said Candle Lighter Patty Hitchcock. "We're not taking a stand on what they represent," she said. "Education has to come from every side."

This year the Candle Lighters funded all requests except one from Fremont-based Friends of Children with Special Needs, which sought more than $16,000.

Grant applicants propose items they need to purchase, and the Candle Lighters cover the cost by paying the vendors directly, Hitchcock said. Group members rank the requests with the top vote-getters receiving the grants.

The Union City clinic's educational materials, which are rooted in scripture, were produced by the anti-abortion organization, Heritage House. Lesson Three, titled "What does God Say," advises troubled students to "consider having a relationship that lasts with Jesus."

The Candle Lighters were shown samples of the curriculum during a meeting in which clinic leaders made their pitch for the grant, said David Whitaker, the clinic's executive director.

"They really grilled us," he said. "They wanted to make sure that this was something the parents were choosing."

Anti-abortion pregnancy centers formed in the 1970s after a Supreme Court decision legalized abortion nationwide, Whitaker said.

The Union City clinic, which opened in 1981 and is one of more than 200 of its kind in California, aims to provide services for women who want to have their baby, and reach out to those who are considering abortion.

A majority of the clinic's clients are poor unwed women between the ages of 18 and 24, Whitaker said.

Women who enter the clinic are given a pregnancy test, offered counseling and asked to watch a video about pregnancy, also produced by Heritage House, Whitaker said. They also are asked to make an appointment for a free ultrasound.

Abortion rights advocates have criticized pregnancy clinics for giving misinformation.

The Union City clinic advises women that they are 50 percent more likely to develop breast cancer if they have had an abortion, even though the American Cancer Society says there is no direct link between abortion and breast cancer.

The cancer group doesn't link the two because of political pressure, Whitaker said.

In 2007, the clinic, staffed and funded mostly by local volunteers, reported 53 babies born to clinic clients of whom 27 were labeled "abortion vulnerable."

The clinic asked for the educational materials because they include instruction in Spanish, which is the only language spoken by several clients, Whitaker said. The parenting lessons are part of the clinic's Earn While You Learn program, in which prospective mothers get vouchers to buy baby clothes and supplies for every lesson they complete.

"We've got to educate them," Whitaker said. "They don't know anything."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002. Read his blog at www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat