Council's Norplant hearing devolves into 'circus' Political bickering mars 6-hour session

February 11, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

The last thing acting Health Commissioner Elias Dorsey wanted two years ago was politics in Baltimore's school clinics. So when he decided to offer birth control to students, he surveyed parents, got the school board's blessing and went ahead.

The result: Students began getting condoms, pills, diaphragms and contraceptive foam in their school clinics with almost no publicity or complaints or political interest.

But the Health Department's plan to offer Norplant, the five-year contraceptive, in one school clinic did not go so smoothly.

Tuesday, politics moved full bore into the Norplant issue. A 6 1/2 -hour City Council hearing featured: council members invoking the specter of racially targeted health care, shouting at one another before reporters and television cameras, and accusing each other of grandstanding.

It was Mr. Dorsey's worst nightmare come true.

"I was trying to avoid that," he said yesterday. "I didn't want to make a circus of it."

But Norplant, with its long-term effects, has attracted more attention than the city's previous birth-control programs. And for politicians, it is irresistible.

"I think it is important that valid concerns of the community are raised," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's new health commissioner. "But in a lot of aspects, health concerns and concerns of adolescents were subsumed by the politics."

The opposition to Norplant -- though it took months to surface -- mirrored the objections raised in other cities about making birth control available to adolescents. The debate drifts away from the issue of Norplant to the controversial issue of sex among teen-agers -- and conservatives protest that offering birth control sanctions immoral behavior in young people.

Yesterday, 3rd District Councilman Wilbur E. Cunningham, who chaired the Norplant hearing, said the session "was a disgrace." What was supposed to be an informational hearing turned into "a show," with politicians trying to upstage one another.

At one point, 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes, one of the leading Norplant opponents, cursed Mr. Cunningham, saying the supporters of the plan had been speaking too long.

Mr. Cunningham suggested from the microphone that Mr. Stokes must be "running for citywide office."

Yesterday, Mr. Cunningham said, "Unfortunately, some members of the council wanted a political platform. This is a health issue. But there are certain political people in town who made it a political issue, for their own political reasons."

Jacqueline M. Hamm, the Norplant program coordinator at Sinai Hospital, testified at Tuesday's hearing and said she was surprised by what she saw.

Some witnesses, she said, tossed around erroneous information about Norplant. "When you're not on the front lines, when you're not talking about it on a day-to-day basis, your understanding is limited," she said. "For instance, until yesterday, I had no idea the political arena was the way it is. I had no idea there's screaming and cursing in City Council chambers.

"Now, a politician might say I'm naive. But I know about Norplant. You see, I sit across from pregnant 13- and 14-year-olds on a regular basis. I have to answer their questions."

In December, Dr. Beilenson said Norplant, which has been available in city clinics for two years, would be offered in one school clinic as well -- at the Laurence Paquin School for pregnant students and new mothers.

During a news conference three weeks ago, a group of East Baltimore ministers talked about "social engineering" and a "genocide" plan to reduce the black population.

Mr. Stokes questioned the health effects of Norplant in adolescents. Council President Mary Pat Clarke said she didn't want Baltimore girls used as guinea pigs -- though Norplant has been used for more than 20 years in other countries.

Yesterday, Mr. Stokes said he was glad the hearing was held. "Radical health policy changes should be communicated to the community that is the affected population," he said.

"When Dr. Beilenson began this conversation, he said there was nobody in the community interested in the issue, that only three letters had come in. I think now he can see there is a larger group of folk that are concerned."

But Dr. Beilenson says the greater Baltimore community is not upset by the Norplant issue. Since Mr. Stokes and East Baltimore ministers had their news conference, he said, "we have had zero negative phone calls to this office about Norplant. So where's the community outrage?"

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