Let them choose Norplant

December 06, 1993|By Magdalene B. Fennell

EVERYBODY has advice on the "new" Norplant contraceptive -- conservative pundits, the City Council, the Nation of Islam, Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore. Everybody, that is, but the young women who would use the new method.

Norplant is installed in a surgical procedure lasting about 15 minutes. Six one-inch plastic rods are inserted under the skin of the upper arm. These rods release a contraceptive hormone for five years. It is Norplant's long-term effectiveness, combined with the unfortunate claim that it is a method of "birth control," that has stirred sharp controversy and made allies of groups that have little in common.

Now, city Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson's plan to widen the availability of Norplant from the Paquin School for Teenage Mothers to Dunbar, Patterson, Southern, Southwestern and Walbrook high schools has created even more resistance.

Some condemn the offering of Norplant to teens, asserting that Baltimoreans have not been educated about the real issues involved in the Norplant matter. They are probably right. Still, the media and city Health Department have tried to tell the Norplant story. Those willing to read, to listen and to accept some responsibility for their own enlightenment will find information abundantly available.

Rev. Gregory Perkins, political liaison for Clergy United, has charged that the Norplant decision "was based on a common racist perception that the overwhelming majority of our children are sexually active." But Baltimore has one of the highest teen-age pregnancy rates in the nation. Since the city is predominantly black, most teen pregnancies are those of black girls who are sexually active.

Making Norplant available to them is one way of dealing with a spiraling epidemic. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, pediatrician and surgeon general of the United States, supports the prevention of teen pregnancy through the use of contraceptives, including Norplant.

The ministers' argument that Norplant does nothing to protect against sexually transmitted diseases is indisputable. Young women who elect Norplant must also elect to practice safe sex. If condoms fail or a sexual partner fails to use a condom, pregnancy is still avoided. And should some girls have the misfortune of contracting AIDS, at least those with Norplant will not pass the disease on to the innocent unborn.

Some object that implanting Norplant through school clinics may be a violation of parents' rights to supervise their own children. But under Maryland law, teens do not need parental approval to use family planning services. When a teen-ager decides on Norplant, she tacitly admits to being sexually active. Since she does not ask her parents' permission to have sex, why must she have their consent to prevent pregnancy?

The offering of Norplant in no way precludes the teaching of abstinence by parent, church or school. Texas, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., all have started programs to promote abstinence among teens. In Baltimore, teens are forming "virgin clubs" and signing covenants to delay sex until marriage. In a society imbued with sex, it may never become fashionable to be abstinent, but the very clergy who are resisting Norplant surely ought to be virgins' loudest cheerleaders.

One aspect of the Norplant debate to which both the literature and the ministers have paid scant attention is the role it can play in reducing the number of teen-age abortions. Norplant critics need to be reminded that girls on Norplant don't get pregnant, and girls who don't get pregnant don't get abortions.

Rosetta Stith, principal of Paquin, reports that the young women in her school are not standing in line outside the health suite to get "Norplanted." At Paquin, she says, they are presented thorough and accurate information about all means of preventing birth -- oral, self-inserted and implanted contraceptives as well as abstinence. They are taught to answer the question, "What is the best method for me to use to control reproduction?" They are taught to make informed choices depending on lifestyle and level of maturity.

Supporters and opponents of Norplant want to reduce teen pregnancy. Both concede that what we're doing to accomplish the goal is not working. An antidote to "child labor" is sorely needed.

Once girls experience the delight of sex, many will find it impossible to return to abstinence. For them, Norplant is the next best option. They should be allowed to choose it without fear of censure or scorn.

Magdalene B. Fennell writes from Baltimore.

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