City's contraceptive plan is attacked

February 10, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Opponents of the city's plan to offer the contraceptive Norplant to sexually active teen-age girls denounced the proposal yesterday as social engineering and said it could have dire health implications that are being overlooked.

A broad range of opponents, including religious leaders representing the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Nation of Islam, asked the City Council to stop the Health Department from offering the contraceptive through the agency's eight school-based clinics.

Norplant is now available at municipal health centers and at a clinic in the Laurence Paquin School for pregnant girls and young mothers.

Officials have delayed plans to make Norplant available at the other school clinics.

Health officials and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke are in favor of making Norplant available to teen-agers, saying it is a safe, effective contraceptive that is being offered along with a range of other options.

Norplant, a five-year contraceptive inserted under the skin, has been available in city health clinics for nearly two years.

In December, Dr. Peter Beilenson, the health commissioner, announced plans to make the contraceptive available to teen-agers.

At yesterday's hearing that began about 3 p.m. and lasted into the night, opponents attacked Norplant on several fronts, often drawing the specters of social engineering and racism into the debate.

Some condemned it as a tool to control the nation's poor, black population.

Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, whose resolution prompted +V yesterday's informational hearing, said the drug was developed to control Third World populations.

Others said differences between whites and blacks are being overlooked.

One witness said teen-age pregnancy is not always as bad as portrayed, citing statistics showing that infant mortality is higher among the children of black women over the age of 20 than among the children of those between 15 and 19.

He said that the reverse is true for whites.

Still others testified that the contraceptive could have different effects on the health of inner-city women in the United States than they have among other groups -- mainly Europeans -- who have used Norplant safely for more than 20 years.

Dr. Christine F. Hohmann, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, warned the council that Norplant could have serious side effects among people who don't have regular access to health care.

"The side effect percentages are higher in the city than in a lot of the literature because the population in the city is not a screened, healthy population," Dr. Hohmann said.

She pointed out that the side effects commonly associated with Norplant, including weight gain, irregular bleeding and headaches, could be made worse by poor health practices such as smoking.

She and other witnesses said those side effects could mask other serious illnesses.

Dr. Hohmann added that those side effects are minimized in Europe, where most women have ready access to free medical care.

Health Department officials testified that 82 percent of thwomen who have received Norplant through city clinics have had some menstrual changes, 32 percent experienced headaches and another 28 percent gained weight.

But Dr. Beilenson said that those problems are almost always minor and that no woman has asked to have the contraceptive removed as a result of them.

"This is really a sound public health policy that is really between [health] providers and their patients," Dr. Beilenson said, adding that patients -- especially teen-agers -- are offered extensive counseling before Norplant is inserted.

Taressa S. Collins, a 16-year-old student and mother of a young daughter, echoed his position. She said that she had Norplant inserted in December and she has experienced no side effects.

"Norplant is helping me move on," she said, adding that she has plans to attend an art college.

"It was my choice. I was counseled down to the last word they could say about this thing. . . . There was no pressure from anyone. This is all on me."

Kimberly Lucas, 21, a mother of two, also spoke in favor of Norplant, saying she chose it after facing "the reality" that she will not practice abstinence.

But others warned that Norplant will mean only one thing to some young women: that they can have sex without running the risk of pregnancy.

Said the Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle, of the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church in East Baltimore: "When kids get that Norplant, you can counsel until you're tired, but there will be only one thing on the mind of a 12- or 13-year-old -- 'I cannot get pregnant.' "

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