GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 3, 2008

Health clinic may expand beyond birth control

By Patrick Anderson

New School Committee rules laying out the reproductive health services available at the Gloucester High School Health Center will address issues beyond the frequently debated question of whether students should have access to contraceptives.

While proposals from medical and public health experts to provide birth control confidentially at the health center has dominated discussions surrounding the School Committee's response to an increase in teen pregnancy, all potential reproductive health services, even those available now, such as pregnancy tests, are up for discussion.

"We will look at everything and weigh the public input," said Mayor Carolyn Kirk, also a member of the School Committee yesterday. "You either offer reproductive health services or you don't. I think the committee needs to come to a conclusion on that main question."

Kirk, who has issued personal support for contraceptive access with parental consent, said it was premature, even after a night of public comment, to say what options were on or off the table.

Residents speaking on the subject of teen pregnancy at the School Committee's special public meeting Wednesday night delivered — on balance — more support for some distribution of contraceptives at the school than none. But the possibility of providing birth control pills and condoms without any parental consent generated more displeasure than support among those voicing their opinions.

The reality of a vocal segment of the population wary of the combination of public education and contraceptives, coming up against a consensus among health experts on the benefits of birth control appears to set up an attempt at compromise from the School Committee.

The school department's draft policy released last week included three options for reproductive health services at the clinic ranging from "comprehensive," including confidential access to birth control, to "limited," excluding any access to contraceptives.

That draft was modified to include a fourth "restricted" range of services that would not even include pregnancy tests, which are currently available at the clinic.

The other option laid out by the draft would involve various methods of parental consent.

School Committee Chairman Greg Verga said yesterday that, personally, he was leaning toward a "menu" approach to enrolling students in the health center that would list all the different services available for parents to consent to, from birth control pills, to pregnancy tests.

"It seems like majority felt that some form of contraception should be available, but I am not comfortable with confidential contraception," Verga said. "My vision is that if we go with contraception and consent, the consent form spells out the options."

Even something like tests for sexually transmitted diseases could, if the School Committee chooses, be added to the menu of consent form check boxes, Verga said.

The School Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to begin deliberating its new reproductive health policy. If a decision is not made at that meeting, the deliberations will resume Wednesday, Oct. 22.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com.