The Schaefer administration's suggestions that the state consider offering Norplant to welfare mothers and vasectomies to inmates touched off a debate yesterday over whether the ideas were a slap at the poor or a gutsy effort to tackle tough issues.
While Gov. William Donald Schaefer emphasized in his State of the State address Thursday that he was not backing such measures, merely opening the debate, he was criticized in some quarters for even discussing the possibility of mandatory birth control.
"What bothers me is that he even raised those ideas," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore.
"I know he said he wasn't advocating them, but the tone was wrong. It was as if he was implying that poor people are not able to raise children properly."
"And when he talks about Norplant being offered or suggested or urged -- it's not clear which -- by people who hand out welfare checks, and vasectomies by people who can decide a man's freedom, I just don't like what he's opening the door to," Mr. Cummings said.
Clifford Johnson, director of the family-support division of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, said focusing on the size of welfare families was misleading.
"The implication is that child-bearing is a major part of the problem, but these mothers do not have large families as a rule," Mr. Johnson said, arguing that the recession was responsible for driving up the welfare rolls.
Others, however, applauded Governor Schaefer's willingness to take on these issues.
"I thought he threw out some very interesting proposals," said Del. Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery County. "I'm very excited that he wants to move on these issues, that he's just not going to sit out the last two years of his term."
Kathy Patterson of the American Public Welfare Association, another Washington-based advocacy group, said that the proposals are consistent with recommendations the federal government came up with after studying the issue for several years.
Camille Wheeler, director of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, said Mr. Schaefer needed to be careful in suggesting the use of vasectomies and Norplant, a female contraceptive that is implanted under the skin and lasts for five years.
"But I don't think anyone in the professional community, or the public at large, would support these being used in a coercive way," she said.
Debate about the governor's suggestions set the talk shows abuzz. Allan Prell said that there was consensus among callers to his WBAL radio talk show.
"There was basically overwhelming agreement with Schaefer's proposal on Norplant," Mr. Prell said. "The perception among the public is that this problem of teen-age pregnancy and illegitimate births is out of control."
The suggestions about vasectomies and Norplant were among a wide-ranging series of measures dealing with welfare and family issues that the governor raised during his hourlong address to the Maryland General Assembly.
The pregnancy-prevention part of the package is three-fold:
* Having health professionals at Department of Social Services, which handles the welfare program, encourage use of Norplant and other contraceptives.
* Offering vasectomies to men leaving prison.
* Insuring access to birth control for those without health insurance, the most expensive proposal.
But much of the overall program is aimed at getting fathers to pay child-support payments.
Those proposals range from requiring hospitals to ask apparent fathers to sign affidavits confirming their paternity to having child-support debts reported to credit agencies to taking driver's licenses away from those owing support.
One proposal would require those fathers unable to pay child support to perform community service, but that is still being drafted in an effort to avoid constitutional problems related to the involuntary servitude prohibitions of the 13th Amendment.
"From the beginning, we emphasized fathers' responsibilities in coming up with these proposals," said David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative aide. "Norplant and vasectomy are only a small part of the picture."
"I think it's clear that the governor is trying to do the right thing," Ms. Wheeler said.
"Our child-support laws need strengthening. These payments are important for people to stay off, or get off, welfare."
Mrs. Kopp added, "I think as a nation we have developed a clear consensus that we have to do something on child support. We have to let both men and women know that a responsibility comes with having children."
The governor's proposal also calls for extending on a statewide basis a pilot program in Annapolis aimed at helping young fathers get involved with their children.