New Family-Planning Rule Challenged in Hearings
Washington--A proposal that would require federally supported family-planning agencies to notify parents when their children sought prescription contraceptives would disregard the intent of Congress, and would likely lead to higher rates of teen-age pregnancy, according to critics of the proposal.
But its supporters, including Senator Jeremiah Denton, Republican of Alabama, say the requirement would affirm parents' rights over their children.
"The proposed rule," Senator Denton said at a recent Congressional hearing on the proposed regulation, "is a long overdue step towards re-establishing what are legitimate parental rights."
At issue, according to critics of the proposal, are potential increases in the already high rates of teen-age pregnancy. Each year, close to one million teen-age girls become pregnant unintentionally, according to recent federal statistics.
The proposal in question, which may be published by the Department of Health and Human Services (hhs) within the next few weeks, would amend the regulations that govern the federal program for family-planning services.
These services receive federal funds under Title X of the Public Health Service Act, reauthorized in 1981. About 1.5 million teen-agers used these services during 1979, according to an analysis by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit population-research organization.
The requirement that parents be notified if their teen-age child seeks prescription contraceptives, however, is also included in the Family Protection Act of 1981, now being considered in Congress.
The rationale behind the proposal, according to the hearing testimony of hhs Secretary Richard S. Schweiker, lies in an amendment to the Public Health Service Act, passed in August as part of the 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. In that amendment, the Congress said that federally funded family-planning agencies should "encourage" family participation when providing services to "unemancipated minors."
The amendment specified, however, that family participation is not required.
According to a not-yet-released draft of the hhs proposal, "The Secretary [of Health and Human Services, Richard S. Schweiker] proposes to implement this amendment by requiring projects to notify the parents of unemancipated minors seeking family planning services when prescription drugs or devices are provided."
But as one family-planning analyst noted, "There is all the difference in the world between encouraging family involvement and requiring parental notification."
The proposal has drawn mixed reactions from members of Congress and heavy criticism from popula-tion, family-planning, and medical organizations. In a recent hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, charged that the regulations would be "a deliberate disregard of the laws duly passed by the Congress and of the clear Congressional intent behind the family-planning statute."
"The law says that parental consent should not be required, that no barriers should be set up to exclude people from receiving care, and that no federal regulations should be established to require family involvement, although girls should be encouraged to involve their families themselves," said Representative Waxman, who chairs the subcommittee.
But Secretary Schweicker sees the matter differently. He testified that the "thrust" of the amendment allows the department to require parental notification.
Mr. Schweiker also cited a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute that reported that only 4 percent of adolescents 17 years old or younger who receive prescription drugs or devices from clinics would continue their sexual activity without using contraceptives if their parents had to be notified.
"Therefore, rather than parental involvement driving all teen-agers away from using contraceptive methods, as some critics might charge, only 4 percent even thought this would be their reaction," Mr. Schweiker said.
A spokesman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, however, said Mr. Schweiker used the statistics out of context and ignored other aspects of the study.
The study found that more than half of the teen-agers coming to the clinic had told their parents of their visits. If agencies required parental notification, the study suggests, an additional 100,000 patients would tell their parents.
But, the researchers added, "The possible benefit of further involving parents is outweighed by the fact that 125,000 young patients would stop using effective methods if their parents were told."
A rough estimate, extrapolated from the data collected for the study, suggests the serious potential consequences if parental notification were required. "In one year, an additional 33,000 adolescents aged 17 or younger would become pregnant, resulting in 14,000 abortions, 9,000 out-of-wedlock births, 6,000 forced marriages and marital births, and 4,000 miscarriages," the researchers concluded.
Dr. Luella Klein, the assistant secretary of the Washington-based American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, also testified on the "dangerously negative impact that would likely result" from the proposed regulation.
As of last Thursday, the agency had not yet released the regulation. At the hearing, Secretary Schweiker said that the regulation would be published within the next few weeks.