March 12, 2010

Birth-control consent issue revived

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

The question of whether parents should give their consent before their minor children seek birth control might be debated in the State House in the next legislative session.

State Sen. Douglas Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, said Monday that he is considering filing legislation to require minors to get their parents' approval to obtain birth control. Smith drafted a similar bill for last winter's legislative session, but State House leaders didn't allow it to be filed.

''It is important that parents who want to be involved and who are responsible not be out of loop,'' Smith said. ''To me, it's just a matter of protecting that basic right of parents.''

The effort stems from last year's controversy over the availability of contraception at a city-run health center in Portland's King Middle School.

Under a 35-year-old state law, parental consent is not needed for minors to be prescribed birth control pills or other contraceptives if they face health hazards, including unwanted pregnancies.

The Family Planning Association, which supports abortion rights and opposes changing the current law, has begun holding meetings around the state to talk about the law in anticipation of Smith's bill.

''We want to be prepared for it; there was a lot of misinformation out there last year,'' said Kate Brogan, vice president for public affairs.

Brogan said a forum is planned for tonight at 6 at the Lewiston Public Library. Future forums are planned in Augusta on Dec. 17, and in Biddeford, Rockland and Calais, likely in January.

Brogan said that as public policy, the existing law makes sense. She notes that Maine has the fifth-lowest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention's 2006 Report on Maine Teen and Young Adult Sexual Health.

The state's teen pregnancy rate decreased by 45 percent from 1984 to 2004, one of the most dramatic improvements in the nation, she said.

Brogan worries that a change in state law requiring parental consent could have consequences.

''What the research shows is that small percentage of teens who don't talk to their parents would stop using birth control,'' Brogan said. ''They'd keep having sex; the teen pregnancy rate would shoot up.''

Smith said there would be exceptions under his legislation to give minors access to birth control without consent in the case of irresponsible parents, or parents with criminal or violent histories.

Supporters of a bill include the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

''If you look at these kinds of issues about minors being able to access services that are serious in nature, parents really want to reserve the right to have input into their children's lives,'' said Marc Mutty, the diocese's director of public affairs.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, a new member of the Legislature, hasn't seen what Smith is considering, but said he trusts the health team at the school, the School Committee and Portland's superintendent.

The Portland School Committee's 7-2 vote in October 2007 made King Middle School the state's only middle school at which a full range of prescription contraceptives is available.

It also started a national debate that raged across the Internet, network news shows and talk shows.

Under the policy, students need parental consent to use the school's city-run health center, which offers a range of services, including reproductive care and condoms. Once parents agree to let their children use the center, the services the students get are confidential.

Today, the brouhaha has faded, said Lisa Belanger, the program manager for student health centers for the city's Public Health Department.

The controversy appeared to have little impact on participation. According to Belanger, as of Dec. 1, there were 295 children enrolled in the King Middle School health clinic. One student got contraceptive services, and did so with her mother's knowledge, said Belanger.

In fall of 2007, when the debate began, 169 of the 500 students at King had permission to use the clinic. After the policy change, parents were required to re-enroll their kids. In April, 163 students were enrolled.

Belanger said she hopes the potential for a bill won't shove King back into the spotlight.

''This isn't about King Middle School; we aren't unique,'' said Belanger. ''It is state law. ''

In her opinion, the existing policy has worked.

''I would hate to see us go backward in time, or feel we've got to correct something if it's not broken,'' said Belanger.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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