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A Cliffie Seeking Birth Control Pills Will Discover That the Health Services, Despite Rumors, Stands By the Law


ACliffie in search of birth control pills will have heard various unconfirmed stories about the University Health Services. But the one that sticks in her mind is that doctors at the walk-in clinic dispense Enovid like Aspirin, and so she may find herself hopefully filling out a little card for the walk-in clinic at the brightly colored clinic entrance to 75 Mt. Auburn Street.

She will be disappointed.

After you fill out the card, you sit in the waiting room, flipping through last month's New Yorker and listening for your name. The array of blank office doors off the big room begins to look like the cylinder of a gun for Russian roulette. Behind one of them is the doctor they will send you in to see-take him or leave him.

The nurse finally calls you over to the corner where half a dozen people, thermometers in mouths, sit lined up against the wall. "What is the nature of your problem?" she asks, looking at the little card on which you checked "medical" (as opposed to "innoculations"). You answer that you just want to talk to one of the doctors. "Oh, then you're not sick." Her face is blank, unknowing, all-knowing. "Please take a seat." The thermometer stays on her desk.

Finally one door opens, and the nurse ushers you in to where a doctor is sitting, engrossed in your folder. You sit down, in silence. You want him to talk first-certainly he can tell there's nothing wrong with you, can guess why you are there. But he doesn't. You ask him for the prescription.

Now chance enters the picture. Every UHS doctor brings to his cubicle in Hoyloke Center a different combination of personality, attitudes, and professional experience. Each reacts differently to your request. One may be brusque, almost brutal. He asks you if you have ever been pregnant or when you are planning to get married. Another may be solicitous, concerned to find out if you are sure, perhaps trying tactfully to change your mind.

No matter what approach an individual doctor at the Health Center takes, however, most visits seem to conclude in the same way. UHS doctors will not prescribe the pills themselves. There is a law in Massachusetts against dispensing contraceptives. The doctors honor the law and will not give prescriptions, but most of them will give the name of a private doctor for a girl to contact on her own. UHS doctors do not give guarantees about these references: "The private doctors may prescribe pills or they may not," Dr. Dana L. Farnsworth, director of the UHS said. Referring a patient to a private doctor who will make his own decision is "completely legal," he noted-and, by then, the question is out of Harvard's hands.

The proportion of Cliffies who actually turn to the clinic is probably not high. Statistics, of course, are impossible to obtain. Each visit to the walk-in clinic must be recorded in a student's folder, and individual doctors can paraphrase a birth control query in different ways. Dr. Preston K. Munter, assistant director of UHS, thinks that most doctors record such a visit as "inf"-asked for general medical information. But at least one Cliffie who asked a doctor for pills recently saw him write "pills" in her folder in large block letters.

Despite the lack of statistics, it is safe to say that most girls get the names of private doctors through the Radcliffe grapevine. That way is more anonymous, less disconcerting than appearing before a doctor who holds your complete medical history.

Massachusetts is one of the last states to retain an anti-birth control law. Eventually the law will go. Then, the UHS will be legally free to adopt any policy it wishes on birth control. Indications are that the decision, when it comes, will not be a simple one. For Health Center administrators, contraception isn't merely a question of law.

Farnsworth doubts that the ban on contraceptives would be lifted if the state law were repealed. "If we administered and supervised contraceptives, we would be saying it was all right," he commented last week. Assistant Director Munter agrees. "Contraception is not just a legal question," he has said. "It is a question of interpersonal relations, morality, and personal dignity." Farnsworth considers the issue as much one of psychology as of morality, and has done studies on the distracting effects of premarital sex on students' emotional and academic lives.

Farnsworth sees a value in distribut-

...the nurse ushers you in to where a doctor sitting, engrossed in your folder. You sit down, in silence. ing information on contraceptives and sex in general. "There is a vast difference between telling someone what might be appropriate and actually supervising it," he points out. "We are in favor of everyone knowing as much as possible, of getting the gossip channels filled with accurate information. After all, they can make their own decisions better than we can." Despite this philosophy, and despite any changes in the law, the UHS's ambivalent "everything-but" policy is likely to continue.

The hard line on abortion is even more likely to continue. Both the law and the risk are more severe. By law, a "therapeutic" abortion is legal only when two doctors independently attest that the pregnancy seriously threatens the life or sanity of the mother. Because the application for a therapeutic abortion has to be accepted by hospital and state authorities, legal abortions are rare. The UHS performs no abortions. Therapeutic abortions, if they can be arranged, are done at Boston hospitals.

Most abortions are performed outside the law. It is certain that the UHS rarely hears about illegal abortions involving Radcliffe students. There is a Harvard-Radcliffe underground directory of abortionists' names and contacts to which people turn first. Again there are no statistics, but abortions are not extremely difficult to obtain in the Boston area, where prices range from $250 up to $1000. Trips to Montreal or Puerto Rico, where abortion is legal, are not uncommon. Japan, where abortion is both legal and very cheap, is not unheard-of as a place of last resort. Estimates on how many Cliffies have had abortions range as high as "at least five girls per dorm."

The grapevine being as effective and private as it is, few pregnant girls seek out the doctors at Holyoke Center. Those who do are encouraged to go to their families. "Square as it sounds, this produces the best result in over 99 per cent of the cases," Munter has said. "Often the families don't react the way the girls fear they might." If a girl insists on an abortion, or threatens to harm herself, Farnsworth said the UHS tries, through counselling or psychotherapy, to "help her arrive at a better solution."

Because of the small proportion of pregnancies that it sees, the UHS gets no feeling of a trend in the number of pregnancies or abortions. "I'm no more alarmed now that I was when I came here," commented Farnsworth, who has directed the UHS for 13 years.

Commenting on general UHS policy, Farnsworth has said, "Often the doctor is in an impossible situation. His first duty is to his patient, but he must also keep his own conscience clear." Maintaining a professional conscience is not an easy assignment in 1967, especially when cash can so easily compensate for conscience in the world beyond Holyoke Center.

You want him to talk first--certainly he can tell there's nothing wrong with you, can guess why you are there

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