By Patrick Anderson
A proposal to provide the "morning after pill" at the Gloucester High School Health Center has been rejected by the School Committee on the grounds it could encourage reckless behavior among students, erode the trust of parents and ignite ideological debate with those who consider it abortion.
Two weeks ago, the committee approved providing traditional contraceptives at the high school, but did not address emergency contraceptives, which are available to adults without a prescription and considered effective and appropriate for teenagers by public health experts.
Looking to end to a policy debate over teen pregnancy that has dominated the committee's attention since June, Superintendent Christopher Farmer on Monday night proposed making emergency contraceptives available, but adding a new check box on the health center's enrollment form that would allow parents to prevent their children from receiving them.
The enrollment form, crafted by Farmer with help from representatives of Addison Gilbert Hospital and Northeast Health System, already included a check box for parents that would prevent their children from being prescribed conventional birth control.
Dr. Peter Short, the new medical director at the high school health center and a vice president at Northeast Health System, said the morning after pill, which goes by the brand name Plan B, was safe, effective and prevented pregnancies before fertilization.
But on a 5-1 vote, the committee voted to keep Plan B out of the clinic and remove mention of it from the enrollment form.
Committee member Melissa Teixeira said including the morning after pill in the clinic's reproductive services "crossed the line" into politically and culturally controversial territory.
"This is more serious than birth control," Teixeira told committee members. "If there is a chance for fertilization, it brings it to another level."
Yesterday, Teixeira said she personally supports the use of emergency contraceptives, but was concerned that distributing them in the clinic could plunge the school system back into controversy after months of debate about last year's rise in student pregnancies.
She said she was also concerned about parents becoming mistrustful of the health center and students not using Plan B responsibly.
Val Gilman told fellow committee members that she felt "blindsided" by the debate about emergency contraception and regretted that it was being considered after not being discussed by residents or a panel of experts at public meetings this summer.
Committee member Nancy Harrison, who previously expressed reservations about providing birth control pills at the clinic because of the possible medical complications, was also opposed to the morning after pill.
"I don't believe this is the right place for it," Harrison said. "It is sending the wrong message."
The lone dissenting vote on the committee came from Amy-Beth Healey, who argued that the morning after pill was not essentially different from birth control pills, which the committee had already decided to make available.
"I really feel, if we are offering prevention, we are offering prevention," Healey said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Plan B for over-the-counter sale to adults in 2006.
The drug is designed to prevent fertilization of an embryo and can be taken up to five days after sex. Some debate remains on whether the drug impacts the implantation of already fertilized embryos in the uterus.
Plan B is sometimes confused with RU-486, the so-called "abortion pill," which terminates a pregnancy up to two months after sex.
The state Department of Public Health, which monitors in-school health centers, supports the distribution of emergency contraceptives.
Chairman Greg Verga said yesterday he voted against allowing Plan B in the clinic because it had not been discussed by residents and that he was personally opposed to the drug because it has the potential to affect embryos after fertilization.
Farmer told the committee that Plan B was "not abortion" and urged a decision on the issue based on science instead of personal beliefs. He emphasized the need to prescribe emergency contraceptives quickly as a reason for doing it in the school clinic.
"They don't talk to families about this, they talk to their friends," Farmer said. "It won't help if it doesn't happen quickly."
Speaking in support of offering emergency contraceptives at the high school, Mary Anne Baker, a clinician at HealthQuatrers in Beverly, said the morning after pill was nothing to be afraid of.
"We dispense it and it works exactly the same way as the pill," Baker said. "It is very safe, much safer than pregnancy."
Mayor Carolyn Kirk, also a School Committee member, hosted a State of the City meeting in Magnolia and was not present for the vote.
The new health center enrollment form approved by the committee will include a paper outlining the services available at the clinic and two check boxes above the field for a parent's signature, one giving permission for a student to receive all services offered at the center and another for the students to receive all services "except for the provision/prescription of birth control."
The committee also voted to include on the signature page of the form text informing parents that teenagers can gain confidential access to contraceptives from primary care physicians under Massachusetts Mature Minor law.
Patrick Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.