Schmoke defends Norplant proposal after some council members attack it

February 03, 1993|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this article.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday defended his health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who came under fire Monday night at a City Council hearing for his controversial proposal to offer the contraceptive Norplant to teen-age girls.

"I think some of what you heard [Monday night] was in the distinct minority," Mr. Schmoke said. "I think that Dr. Beilenson's decisions as health commissioner enjoy strong support of the majority of the City Council."

"We're going to go ahead and continue to do what we are doing" with the Norplant program, the mayor said. During a grueling three-hour hearing on Dr. Beilenson's reappointment by Mr. Schmoke, council members blasted the health commissioner for not informing them -- or the community -- of the controversial plan.

Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, also charged that the distribution of Norplant is a "social policy" designed to control the population of the poor in the city.

Dr. Beilenson, who became more defensive and almost combative as the hearing wore on, dismissed the charges of population control. He also 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 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 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."

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 poor. "It's not birth control but population control," he said.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Stokes took issue with an account of the hearing in yesterday's editions of The Evening Sun, which reported his comments as relating to the black community.

"I don't think that it's a black-white issue . . . and I've been careful not to say that," he said yesterday. "I do think it's culturally targeted -- socially, economically targeted."

The councilman said his concerns covered not only black teen-agers, but "poor white" and Hispanic girls as well.

But his comments about "population control" Monday night were the kind of charges that fueled the controversy, which took on a racial overtone as residents and council members raised questions about the Norplant policy.

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, suggesting that what really was being asked was: "What is this really about? First of all for our children, and, secondly, for our population and race?"

"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 might 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 do birth control pills, has been used safely in other countries for 28 years. Norplant, which lasts for five years, looks like match sticks and is surgically implanted in the arm.

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.

At one point, 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 he questioned whether she would ask that of other department heads.

"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 they believed Dr. Beilenson's reappointment will be approved.

Council members, however, expect that he will face an equal amount of heat at a special hearing on Norplant scheduled for 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.

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