The disclosure that Baltimore's health department dispenses birth control pills and condoms at seven city schools has upset some parents and clerics. Schools are supposed to educate, not pass on moral judgments, they contend, adding that dispensing birth control not only crosses that line but sends the dangerous message that teen sex is permissible.
Such concerns are understandable. Changing mores, together with alarming increases in teen pregnancies and venereal disease, are frightening realities. Equally frightening is institutional intervention in moral decisions.
Proponents argue that the issue is health, not morality, that the aim is to temper the fallout from teen sex. That a problem exists is the middle ground on which both sides can agree. Consider these troubling statistics: the rate of birth to teen-aged girls, on the decline after 1973, began climbing again in 1986. The number of births to girls ages 15 to 17 rose 10 percent from 1986 to 1988. That year, Baltimore led the nation in babies born to teens. Last year, nearly a third of the city's gonorrhea cases involved teen-agers.
It is against these worrisome numbers that birth control in school-based clinics must be weighed. Certainly the notion strikes emotional chords in parents anxious to protect their children from the folly of premature sex. Many favor urging abstinence -- sound advice, but inadequate without information on protection.
Will dispensing condoms encourage teen-age sex? A Johns Hopkins University study done in the early '80s points to the contrary: a school-linked clinic that distributed contraceptives caused a 30 percent drop in the pregnancy rate and an actual decrease in sexual activity.
It is important that the value of this program not be lost in emotionally charged, erroneous perceptions. No one, in fact, is proposing that teachers pass out condoms as they would composition books. No one is suggesting that youngsters be given means of birth control without proper counseling -- including the discussion of abstinence. The health department simply wants to make these available to teens at clinics in the schools. These same clinics since 1985 have not only counseled sexually active city students but have prescribed contraceptives that would ordinarily be picked up at clinics outside the schools.
Is dispensing birth control at school health clinics really any more objectionable than referring youngsters to a family-planning clinic? The availability of information -- and access -- to birth control seems to be a sensible response to teen sexuality. Assistance from health care professionals does not create the problem. It may be one of the solutions.