Offering Norplant in on-site clinics at public schools in Baltimore might seem like one of those evils that is necessary or even inevitable: this is, after all, a city where one in ten girls between the ages of 15 and 17 gave birth in 1990. But the language used by the plan’s advocates reveals a dangerous mindset. For in providing teenage girls with a “contraceptive that will get them through their school years” (as Dr. Peter Beilenson, city health commissioner terms it), city leaders are assuming responsibility for matters that were once handled by individuals and their families.
Dr. Beilenson has taken it upon himself to organize a consortium of hospitals, doctors, clinics, and a private foundation that will facilitate discussion of the merits of Norplant not just in public and private clinics (where it has a place) but in “family-life” classes in public schools. While it is true that over threequarters of the students in the Baltimore school system are sexually active. Dr. Beilenson’s plan for a fool-proof pregnancy insurance should give us pause.
As Baltimore City Council member Carl Stokes argues. Dr. Beilenson’s type of thinking “runs toward social engineering.” “There is a strong mood among some folks,” he says, “that we can’t control these girls’ behavior so we just throw up our hands and put this implant in them. It relieves us of the problem of them having babies that we have to pay for.” Encouraging or requiring women on welfare to use Norplant (proposals that not a few conservatives support) are one thing; but somehow dispensing Norplant devices (not to mention condoms and birth control pills, which are already available at six high schools and two middle schools in Baltimore) at schools like the Laurence G. Paquin School for pregnant teens and young mothers is quite another.
It’s difficult to say which is more maddening to contemplate in this case: the teenagers who can’t or won’t exercise some restraint or the adults who step in to make sure they don’t have to. Take the story of 19-year-old Consuelo Laws, a senior at Paquin and single mother of two young children. Miss Laws opted in September 1991 to receive Norplant at no cost to her from a public clinic in Baltimore—a prudent decision, if somewhat belated. Yet the reasons she gives for this choice reveal just how irresponsible we have allowed today’s teenagers to become: “I decided to use Norplant because it seemed to me to be a very effective form of birth control,” Laws said. “I’m not one to take the pill. I always forget to take it. I needed something I didn’t have to worry about all the time.”
Comments like these are typical of a nation whose inhabitants are fond of shirking responsibility for their actions. Yet when they are echoed by supposed educators like Paquin’s principal Dr. Rosetta Stith—who happily reports that her girls “look at Norplant as a much more advanced method [of contraception] that would let them go on with their lives without worrying about getting pregnant, or remembering to get their birth-control prescription filled”—we must wonder how far such abdication of accountability will go.
Apparently pretty far, if we can judge by Dr. Doris Tirado of the Maryland Planned Parenthood unit, who is ever ready to hold adolescents by the hand so that their frolicking can go on carefree. “Teens have a whole different mindset,” Dr. Tirado explains. “We do have some who find their way to Planned Parenthood on their own and ask for Norplant. But what we need to do for most adolescents is go into the schools and tell them what Norplant is, how it works, where it’s available, what the hours are, and what bus to take.”
The Baltimore plan points up a familiar pattern. Families, under the unyielding pressure of schools, welfare agencies, and Planned Parenthood, have abdicated their duties and no longer make any effort to teach children responsibility and restraint. And what is the response of the community agencies that started the whole process in the first place? Why, to up the ante by taking away the last possible incentive to exercise self-control.