Parenting versus privacy: Maine debates access to teen medical treatment

Posted March 22, 2011, at 9:42 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on when a teenager’s right to privacy should outweigh their parents’ right to know when it comes to sex, pregnancy, treatment for drug and alcohol problems or other medical issues.

In what was likely a precursor to bigger legislative battles to come over abortion, health and civil liberties groups squared off against advocates for stronger parental rights and social conservatives during a committee hearing.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is considering two proposals to loosen Maine laws that allow minors to seek mental health counseling, treatment for substance abuse or prescription drugs — including contraceptives — without their parents’ knowledge.

Supporters argued that the measures were needed to address government intrusion into Mainers’ family lives.

“I believe the family unit is the most important foundation of our society and I believe having these laws only strengthens that foundation,” said Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples.

Opponents, however, warned that the bills would make Maine the most restrictive state in the nation regarding minors’ health privacy and could backfire, potentially resulting in additional pregnancies, abortions and abuse.

“We strongly believe that the health of Maine adolescents will be placed at risk with the passage of these two bills,” said Angela Westhoff, executive director of the Maine Osteopathic Association.

Cebra is the lead sponsor of the most controversial of the “parental consent” bills, LD 31, which would prohibit pharmacists or clinics from dispensing prescription drugs to minors without first receiving permission from a parent or guardian.

A second bill, LD 746, would require parental consent before a minor could receive treatment for substance abuse or emotional and psychological problems.

Both bills would exempt minors from having to receive permission if they are married, serve in the military or live independently from their parents. Cebra said he also intended to allow minors to seek a “judicial bypass,” while LD 746 would allow exceptions when seeking consent could result in “harm or maltreatment.”

Much of Tuesday’s testimony focused on teenagers’ access to birth control or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Echoing the statements of many supporters, Brian Souchet of Brunswick said that rather than deterring sexual activity, distribution of contraceptives and birth control to teenagers only encourages such behavior.

Souchet strongly objected to the prospect of young, teenage girls being given powerful, hormone-altering drugs without their parents’ knowledge.

But opponents — including numerous health professionals — said confidentiality laws for both prescription drugs and treatment are an unfortunate necessity. While parental involvement is always encouraged, the reality is not all teens have a healthy home life with supportive and understanding parents, the bills’ critics said.

Noreen Comeau, a nurse practitioner from Farmington and a representative of the Maine Nurse Practitioner Association, said teens come to her office confidentially for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, they are seeking treatment for substance abuse problems after being introduced to the drugs or alcohol by their parents.

Gordon Smith, executive director of the Maine Medical Association, which represents approximately 3,500 physicians and medical students, said those confidentiality clauses were written into law as many as 40 years ago with the goal of encouraging adolescents to get medical care.

“Physicians do try to involve families and parents in the care of adolescents,” Smith said. “It is simply that, in some instances, they need the flexibility to treat some adolescents confidentially. … I think we should allow them to do what they are trained to do.”

But Nick McGee, a father of three from Scarborough who supports the two bills, said the state policies are backward. Instead of assuming all parents are irresponsible, the state should have to prove that parents are incapable of caring for their children before taking away their right to know about important health issues.

With a new Republican majority in Augusta, observers are expecting battles over abortion to be more heated than usual this legislative session. Public hearing dates have not been scheduled for the abortion-related bills, however.

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