Is Norplant birth control or social control? Some clergy charge the latter

January 22, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer Staff writer Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

Raising health concerns and the specter of social engineering, a group of East Baltimore ministers is asking the city to halt distribution of the contraceptive Norplant at public health clinics.

Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore wants a detailed study of Norplant's effect on black teen-agers.

The group's protest comes eight weeks after Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Peter Beilenson, organized the Baltimore City Norplant Consortium to promote the use of Norplant among teen-agers -- including making it available in one school clinic this month.

For nearly two years, Norplant has been available to all women in city and state health clinics, as well as through private doctors -- with little protest.

Last night, Dr. Beilenson said he was surprised to hear of the ministers' objections. Two of them -- the Rev. Marshall Prentice and the Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle 2nd -- are members of the Baltimore City Norplant Consortium, he said.

Dr. Beilenson said that the two ministers took an active role in the last meeting of the group, which he organized in November to promote use of Norplant in a city with one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the country.

But Mr. Tuggle, vice president of the minister's group, which claims about 230 churches, denied being a member of the

Norplant consortium, saying he had attended only one meeting.

Until now, objections to Norplant had been scarce.

The Rev. William Calhoun, head of the politically powerful Baltimore Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said he sees no problem with offering Norplant in public health clinics and has heard no complaints from his congregation or other ministers.

"Don't we already offer other contraceptives?" he asked. "So what's the difference?

Mr. Calhoun said he would prefer that teen-agers did not have sex. "But we know the reality."

Norplant, a contraceptive that lasts five years, is contained in six matchstick-size capsules inserted under the skin of the upper arm. The capsules steadily release the contraceptive into the system and thus have been proven more reliable at preventing pregnancy than forms of birth control that must be employed with each sexual encounter.

The distribution of Norplant to a predominantly black inner-city population "pushes the issue of social control of an ethnic minority by the majority population, whose culture and values may be different," Mr. Tuggle said.

"There's no way a group of white men and white women can

make a decision on the black community . . . health program," he said.

The consortium is about one-third black and overwhelmingly female.

Mr. Tuggle said his group ratified their opposition to the Norplant plan at a meeting Tuesday attended by about 20 pastors. He said that while his group favors abstinence, members recognize that many young people use contraceptives.

But he said that the health effects of Norplant have not been adequately tested on young teen-agers.

Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, who also warned that Norplant has not been fully tested, said the city should refuse Norplant at all middle school health clinics and not provide it to any young teen-agers without parental consultation.

And he said that some critics believe that the plan "gets close to social engineering, telling people how to behave."

Dr. Beilenson rejected claims that Norplant is a health risk.

Although it has not been tested specifically on black teen-agers, it has been used safely for at least 20 years in other countries.

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