BANGOR, Maine — A state policy group that wants to preserve teens’ unrestricted access to birth control is gearing up for a potential legislative battle.
The Family Planning Association of Maine held the first of seven community forums on Tuesday in Bangor to discuss the importance of providing youth with options regarding birth control and reproductive health. The featured panel was largely preaching to a sympathetic choir of about 30 people, but the event’s organizers stressed that generating a coalition of support is paramount.
“Access to birth control will be challenged by the Legislature,” said Dr. Connie Adler, a Farmington physician and chair of the Family Planning Association’s Heart of ME campaign. “It’s really important that we have this conversation.”
The Heart of ME campaign was launched in response to anticipated legislation that would require parental consent before school clinics and other health care providers could prescribe birth control. Sen. Doug Smith, R-Dover-Foxcroft, who sponsored a similar bill unsuccessfully during the last session, has indicated he is considering revisiting the topic. Other lawmakers also may be considering submitting similar measures before the mid-January deadline for filing bills in the 124th Legislature.
Kate Brogan, a policy analyst with the Family Planning Association, said her group’s goal is to build a broad base of support to counteract aggressive campaigns on the other side of the issue. Powerful lobbying groups such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the Maine Family Policy Council (formerly the Christian Civic League of Maine) and the Jeremiah Project have pledged support for parental consent in the past.
“They want to reverse 35 years of state law,” Brogan said. “So we want an army of people to be ready to contact legislators and have this conversation.”
Current Maine law does not require parental notification or consent for minors to be prescribed birth control pills as 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.
Dr. Eric Brown, a family physician in Bangor who sat on the panel, said it’s a no-brainer that teens should have access but added that not everyone knows their rights.
“My experience is that teens don’t have a clue,” he said. “They are just as surprised as parents.”
The issue of parental consent, which went largely unnoticed for many years, was brought back to light when the Portland School Committee voted 7-2 in October 2007 to make a full range of contraception available to sixth- through eighth-graders at King Middle School without requiring a parent’s approval. The vote didn’t sit well with some parents and community members who called for changes in the policy.
Linda Ross, a Hampden parent who sat on the panel at Tuesday’s forum, said all parents want to believe that their children are abstinent, but reality suggests otherwise.
“You can talk about abstinence, and you should,” she said. “But our kids are sexually saturated. Oftentimes we don’t bring it up because it’s hard. My daughters don’t have a choice but to talk to me because I just keep bringing it up.”
Unfortunately, Adler said, most parents are not like Ross.
“Eighty percent of teens who are sexually active would not seek assistance if parents had to be involved,” she said. “That’s a really big problem.”
All of the panel members agreed that open communication is the biggest factor. Maine, which used to have one of the nation’s highest teen pregnancy rates, now has the fifth-lowest.
“Communication is the biggest part of that,” Brogan said. “And access.”
In addition to the Bangor forum, the Family Planning Association of Maine has meetings planned in Augusta, Biddeford, Calais, Lewiston, Rockland and South Paris. A list of locations and times has not yet been completed, but it will be posted on the organization’s Web site, www.mainefamilyplanning.org.