City Council criticizes Norplant plan Members upset that health chief announced plan without council's OK

February 02, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

Baltimore City Council members blasted Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner, for not informing them or the community of the plan to distribute Norplant to teen-age girls.

Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, also charged that the distribution of Norplant, a contraceptive, is designed to reduce the black population.

During a grueling three-hour hearing last night on Dr. Beilenson's re-appointment by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, council members said they first heard about the plan in December, when it it surfaced in a newspaper.

Dr. Beilenson, who became more defensive and almost combative as the night wore on, dismissed the charges of population control. He proposed creating a Community Health Advisory Board in an effort to head off any misunderstandings about Health Department policies.

While council members grilled Dr. Beilenson on a variety of issues ranging from AIDS and tuberculosis to the Hawkins Point medical waste incinerator and a desire to see more health department contracts go to minority firms, the discussion always came back to Norplant.

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, D-4th, chairman of the council's executive appointments committee, opened the hearing by criticizing Dr. Beilenson for his handling of the Norplant plan, saying, "I don't want to see this sort of thing happen again in the future."

Mr. Bell said complaints to his office "are from people who are saying, 'You're having things done to us, instead of with us.' "

Mr. Stokes, the Norplant plan's most vocal council critic, called the program a "social policy" aimed at the black community. "It's not birth control, but population control," he said.

It was that kind of charge that fueled the controversy, which took on a racial overtone as residents testified against the Norplant policy.

Minister Jamil Muhammed, Baltimore representative of the Nation of Islam, said his group was "overwhelmingly, categorically" against "the Norplant option." He said his biggest concern, however, was with the health of the teen-agers. "We are not dealing with women. . . . These are girls," he said.

Dr. Beilenson repeatedly denied that the Norplant plan was "a tool of social engineering."

Finally, the weary health chief said: "I think it's kind of insulting to suggest that the mayor would allow the genocide of his own people, and that's what I'm hearing."

Council President Mary Pat Clarke then tried to explain the concerns of the black community. "What is this really about? First of all for our children, and, secondly, for our population and race?" she asked.

"We want you to be sensitive to the very real concerns across this council," Mrs. Clarke said. "We have this funny feeling that there's a targeting going on."

Mr. Stokes raised further concerns about the physical effect Norplant would have on teen-age girls. Norplant's safety, he maintains, has not been proven in young black women -- though the contraceptive, which contains fewer hormones than birth control pills, has been used safely in other countries for 28 years. Norplant looks like match sticks and is surgically implanted in the arm. It lasts up to five years.

And Mr. Stokes, the father of two daughters, again voiced his objections to the implants being made without parental notification. Dr. Beilenson countered that such notification is prohibited under Maryland law.

Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, D-5th, suggested that Dr. Beilenson make a habit of running health policy changes past the council and community in the future.

But Dr. Beilenson questioned whether she would ask that of other department heads, saying, "I'm not sure what's going on here.

"If I am that big a problem, then you should get another commissioner," he said. "I understand that maybe I didn't do the Norplant well. . . but I'm not sure how much of this is politics."

Despite the at-times heated debate, council members said last night they think Dr. Beilenson's reappointment will be approved.

In October, the council first approved Dr. Beilenson's appointment as health commissioner, but that was merely to finish out the last 2 1/2 months of the unfinished, six-year term of the city's last permanent health commissioner.

Mr. Schmoke then reappointed Dr. Beilenson, but in order to continue in the post, the appointment must again be approved by the council, which must act by next Monday under a time limit set by the City Charter.

Council members expect that Dr. Beilenson will face an equal amount of heat at a special hearing on Norplant scheduled next Tuesday at 3 p.m. in the council's chambers.

In November, Dr. Beilenson announced the creation of the Baltimore City Norplant Consortium to help make Norplant available to sexually active teen-agers. Last month, the clinic at the Laurence Paquin School, for girls who are pregnant or have just given birth, did the first Norplant insert in a school clinic.

Contraceptives in Baltimore school clinics are not new. For two years, students have been able to get birth control pills, condoms, foam or a referral for Norplant.

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