Birth Control in Middle Schools Debated

A decision to offer the pill and other methods of contraception to children at a middle school in Portland, Maine, has touched off all sorts of controversy. The Portland School Committee voted this week to allow a clinic at the school to offer birth control. Parents must approve their children's use of the clinic but they would not be notified if the kids were given contraceptives.

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It was bound to stir up controversy. Nevertheless, the school committee in Portland, Maine, voted this past week to allow children as young as 11 years old to obtain birth control pills at a school health center. The program is part of an effort to curb teenage pregnancy. King Middle School will become the first middle school in the state and one of only a few in the nation to make a full range of contraception available to its pupils.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has details.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: School officials in Portland, Maine scandalized a lot of people when they decided to provide birth control to middle school students. But organizations that monitor teen sexual activity nationwide say people should not be surprised that kids as young as 11 and 12 are having sex.

Mr. JOHN SCHLITT (Executive Director, National Assembly on School-Based Health Care): I don't think the public is yet willing to admit that adolescent sexuality really does, you know, begin in middle school.

SANCHEZ: John Schlitt heads the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care.

Mr. SCHLITT: I think it's a wake up call for people to understand the needs of adolescents today. You know, most school-based health centers in this country do not prescribe or dispense contraception because of the controversy. So each community really sort of has to make a decision for itself how it wants to handle some of these really complicated, challenging public health concerns like teen pregnancy and HIV infection.

SANCHEZ: Schlitt says there are roughly 1,700 health centers serving about two percent of the nation's public schools. Only a third of these centers provide some form of birth control to students. Also, these centers today are just as likely to offer abstinence counseling as they are to provide pregnancy testing. As for birth control pills, a couple of recent surveys estimate that 20 percent of teenage girls today use them. But there are no official figure showing how many middle schools provide them, or condoms for that matter, with or without parents' permission.

At King Middle School in Portland, Maine, students are supposed to get their parents' permission before they can get any medical attention or services, including physical exams, counseling, even aspirin. But if the clinic was to begin issuing birth control pills tomorrow, state law would prevent the school's clinic from telling parents without a child's consent. The head of the state's biggest parents group says that's going to be a problem.

Ms. TAMMIE BREEN (President, Parent Teacher Association, Maine): I would be devastated if I found out my child had this done without me approving it.

SANCHEZ: Tammie Breen, president of Maine's Parent Teacher Association, says she'd be in favor of requiring parents' consent for any and all of health-related services at the very beginning of the school year.

Ms. BREEN: You know, give them more specifics so that they can say, yes, they can have a physical or they can't have a physical without my approval. You know, those types of details.

SANCHEZ: In Portland, school officials say most of the phone calls and e-mails they received have been from angry parents who argue that only parents, nobody else, should decide whether their child should use any kind of birth control.

This is going to be a huge issue, says Lori Gramlich, one of seven school committee members who voted in favor of providing birth control pills to sixth, seventh and eighth grade girls. But Gramlich says it would have been more troubling to do nothing. She spoke to NPR's DAY TO DAY.

Ms. LORI GRAMLICH (Member, Portland School Board Committee): I mean, I guess kind of what brought me to the conclusion of voting for this was we know that there are young people having intercourse. We know they're having unprotected sex. But if we can do whatever we can to prevent one teen pregnancy, then, I think we've done our job.

SANCHEZ: It's still not clear when King Middle School will begin dispensing birth control pills or patches to students. But already, opponents of the policy are mounting a recall of the committee members who voted for it.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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