Residents of a divided Gloucester issued passionate pleas last night both for and against offering contraceptives to students at the high school health center at a special public meeting on teen pregnancy that showed significant resistance exists among the community for offering birth control without parental consent.
"I strongly disagree with the option of confidential contraception in school," said Jim Spillman of Magnolia Avenue. "Parents are primary owners of the responsibility to educate their children."
Offering a counterpoint and injecting a youthful view in a debate often commanded by parents and adult experts, a contingent of high schoolers joined the crowd of around 50 at City Hall and delivered news of general — but not exclusive — enthusiasm for access to contraceptives among the student body.
"There should be contraceptives, but there should be limits," said junior Pamela Tobey, reporting the sentiment of the student council, which met to discuss pregnancy on Monday.
The limits students recommended, Tobey said, were age limits on who could receive contraceptives and rules requiring they get follow-up care to make sure they are using them correctly.
Kyle Smith, vice president of the senior class, said results of a recent, unscientific survey of the senior class indicated 86 percent of seniors felt contraceptives should be offered and 49 percent said they would be comfortable talking about contraception with a parent.
But junior Allison Phillips said she felt that contraceptives in the high school would create more problems then they would solve.
"We believe it would be unnecessary to provide contraceptives without consent," Phillips said. "The majority should not be affected by the minority, because the problem cannot be solved. Sex education needs to be discussed and the consequences made clear."
Several parents echoed the concern that confidential birth control would take away responsibility and authority rightly held by parents.
"I am not that comfortable with contraceptives given out without parental consent," said Shelley Watanabe of Chapel Street. "Trust would be broken."
"Contraceptives are absolutely necessary, however, what I don't agree with is the philosophy that the schools should dictate to children human interaction," said Dan Ross of Reynard Street.
On the other side of the issue were parents who felt the advice of medical experts that contraceptives are proven to reduce pregnancies and less risky than teens having children should drive policy.
"Sexual activity does happen," Joe Rosa, chairman of the Board of Health said. "While abstinence should be encouraged, if we want to limit pregnancies, contraceptives should be provided."
Mitchell Cohen of Witham Street cast the issue as one of separation between church and state, on the grounds that objections to contraceptives were coming from religious beliefs.
"In America, all we have is science," Cohen said.
Wendy Brown, joining her daughter Kyla, a junior at the high school who gave birth to son Cameron this month, said, "I like what the kids had to say. The whole thing with no contraceptives is insane."
The special meeting was the first chance for Gloucester residents to add their thoughts on the subject to the official record since an estimated fourfold rise in pregnancies during the last school year was reported in April/May, setting off a furious debate about access to contraceptives.
The School Committee has promised to formulate a new policy to limit teenage pregnancy and is scheduled to deliberate Oct. 8 and 22 at meetings where public comment will not be allowed.
Tonight the committee will meet again at City Hall and hear anyone else looking to speak on the issue.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.