Fight Erupts Over 'Plan B' Access In New York Schools

Students at more than a dozen New York City high schools can now get the so-called morning-after pill without a prescription or a parent's consent. City health officials say they're taking the unusual step to prevent teen pregnancy and that parents can opt out if they wish. Still, many parents expressed outrage after the program was publicized.

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Now to a story about one way New York City is trying to reduce teen pregnancy. School nurses are giving out more than just condoms. At 13 high schools, students can get the morning after pill without a prescription and without notifying their parents. And that does not sit well with some parents, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Emergency contraceptive pills, which are often described by the brand name Plan B, have been available to thousands of high school students in New York since last school year. So are condoms, regular birth control pills and educational materials about reproductive health. But it was the emergency contraceptives that touched off a cascade of criticism, after a story on the program broke last week in the New York Post. Here's Deborah Kaplan, an assistant commissioner in the city's health department on CNN last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

DEBORAH KAPLAN: We know that in New York City public schools about 40 percent of young people are sexually active. And while we totally encourage them and believe it's so critical that they talk with their parents, not all young people can or feel they can. And yet, they're sexually active and we're looking at how can we protect these young people from unintended pregnancy?

ROSE: The health department declined NPR's requests for an interview, though a spokesman did point out that parents get a chance to opt their children out of the program, and fewer than two percent of them have. City officials say 7,000 young women in New York City become pregnant by age 17 each year, and that 90 percent of those pregnancies are unwanted. But some parents say this is the wrong way to lower the rate of teen pregnancy.

MONA DAVIDS: This is not putting on a condom.

ROSE: Mona Davids is president of the New York City Parents Union. Davids says parents should know if their daughters are planning to use emergency contraception.

DAVIDS: This is having 14 to 17-year-old children ingest hormonal, chemical, drug cocktails without notifying their parents. And that is wrong because if anything were to happen to any of those children, the parents will have to deal with the consequences.

ROSE: But public health officials say the risks associated with the morning after pill are minimal. Wendy Chavkin teaches at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

WENDY CHAVKIN: Because contraception and emergency contraception have been so controversial in the United States, they have been studied enormously. And so we can actually say with confidence that there is no risk involved.

ROSE: Indeed, this isn't the first controversy over whether teenagers should have access to emergency contraception. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved a plan to sell the morning after pill over the counter to young teenagers. Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, overruled the agency. But emergency contraception pills don't seem likely to disappear from the school nurse's office of 13 New York high schools. Despite the vocal opposition, city officials show no signs of backing down. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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