Birth control for minors scrutinized

Posted Nov. 25, 2008, at 9:05 p.m.

Anticipating a legislative challenge to state laws giving teens access to birth control prescriptions and other reproductive health services without the consent of their parents, the Family Planning Association of Maine will host a series of forums around the state, beginning Tuesday in Bangor.

The issue stems from last year’s controversy about a school clinic in Portland that prescribed birth control to middle school students.

“Many people are misinformed,” Sue McPhee of the Family Planning Association said in a recent interview. “We want to give people an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about why confidentiality is so important to young people seeking access to information and services.”

Sen. Douglas Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, confirmed on Monday that he is considering submitting legislation that would require school clinics and other health care providers to notify parents or obtain their consent before prescribing birth control pills or other contraceptives to minors.

There may be some situations in which it is appropriate to bypass parental notification and consent, he said, and the law should accommodate those circumstances.

“But for intact families and responsible parents involved with every aspect of their children’s lives, this is a matter of great concern,” Smith said.

Current Maine law does not require parental notification or consent for minors to be prescribed birth control pills, patches, injections or implants, so long as the prescriber believes the minor would suffer “probable health hazards” — including unintentional pregnancy — without them.

In addition, emergency contraception, also known as “the morning-after pill,” is available without parental consent, along with pregnancy testing and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

A minor female in Maine may obtain an abortion without parental consent, provided she meets one of several other requirements, such as obtaining professional counseling or a judge’s order.

Smith said Monday that he drafted a parental notification bill during the last legislative session, but because it was the second year of the biennium, when only emergency bills are supposed to be heard, consideration of the measure was rejected.

He said the setback has provided him with an opportunity to research the issue more closely.

“I was concerned [about the situation in Portland],” he said, “but I wasn’t satisfied that I had done all my homework.”

Smith, a retired lawyer, said he is researching the specifics of Maine law regarding reproductive health services for minors, as well as how those services are typically delivered. He has not yet decided whether to submit a parental notification bill for the legislative session that begins in January.

Among the most active supporters of Smith’s initial bill was the Christian Civic League of Maine, now the Maine Family Policy Council. The group called for an investigation of illegal sexual activity among minors at the Portland school, collected signatures seeking to recall some members of the Portland school board, and rallied its members to urge support for the parental consent legislation.

On Tuesday, Maine Family Policy Council spokesman Michael Hein said the organization is prepared to re-enter the fray should similar legislation be submitted in the coming session.

The organization will “marshal grass-roots support for the legislation … to encourage and mobilize concerned pro-family Mainers to contact their legislators in support of this bill,” Hein said.

He added that the policy council “fully expects additional support for this parental notification legislation from many sources, including churches and pastors, to include the Catholic Diocese of Portland.”

Marc Mutty, director of public policy for the diocese, said it had been supportive of the initial bill and likely would line up behind a revised version.

“We haven’t seen it, but we are philosophically supportive,” he said. All minors should have the benefit of sharing medical decisions with their parents, he said.

Data provided by the Family Planning Association indicate that adolescents are less likely to use health services without the guarantee of confidentiality. Fewer than 20 percent of teens say they would seek access to birth control if parental notification were required, according to the association. It said its research also shows that mandatory parental consent laws fail to persuade minor children to share their health concerns with parents.

Especially in cases of rape or incest, McPhee said, requiring parental notification or consent can jeopardize a minor’s safety.

And while most teens do consult at least one parent in their health care concerns, she said, “the data is clear that young people will stop using birth control if they have to inform their parents.”

In recent years, Maine has gone from having one of the highest teen pregnancy rates to the fifth-lowest in the nation, McPhee said, despite 45 percent of the state’s high school students reporting they are sexually active.

“Maine is neither ahead of other states nor behind” when it comes to minors’ access to contraception, according to Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby. According to a recent analysis of states’ policies by the Guttmacher Institute, which seeks to improve sexual and reproductive health, 21 states and the District of Columbia allow minors unrestricted consent to contraceptive services, while 25, including Maine, impose some restrictions.

In addition to physician concerns over a potential health hazard, states with restrictions permit minors to consent to contraceptive services if they are married, if they are parents, if they previously have been pregnant, if they are high school graduates or if they meet certain other requirements.

Maine’s laws have been on the books since 1973, Harper said, and have the support of the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Children’s Alliance, the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups.

The Family Planning Association of Maine’s first public meeting on the parental consent issue will take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 2, at Penquis Health Services, 262 Harlow St., Bangor.

In addition, the association plans public meetings in Augusta, Biddeford, Calais, Lewiston, Rockland and South Paris.

For information, call 772-3841 or e-mail lcudlitz@fpam.org.

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