Would you want your 12-year-old child coming home from middle school with birth control pills?
Strange as it may seem, that is a question that some residents of Portland, Me. will have to wrestle with after the school board last week passed a measure allowing an independently-run clinic at a local middle school to distribute prescription-strength birth control pills without parental permission. Any student wishing to receive the pills will have to undergo counseling and be examined by a physician or nurse who can prescribe the drugs. And parents do have to sign a waiver to give their children access to any of the clinic’s services. But the decision to prescribe the pill without notifying parents has sent shockwaves through the local community and garnered the attention of the national press.
Local health officials told The New York Times that the decision was made to distribute the pill at the middle school in light of the fact that 17 students there have become pregnant in the past few years. Their argument was that if a small minority of the school is sexually active, the school should provide the resources to all, regardless of their age, to protect that minority. Although these circumstances may have precipitated the need for such a measure, providing the pill to middle school students without parental permission is nonetheless inappropriate and contradictory to the purpose of public schools in the United States.
A school is meant to serve as a surrogate guardian of students during the school day while students’ parents are at work, but this policy works to undermine the authority of the parents. By allowing these teen and pre-teen students to receive these contraceptives—which can cause hormone levels to fluctuate and facilitate unprotected sexual contact—the school is in practice betraying the trust placed in it by the parents of its students. While this action would be permissible in a private school, the fact that the school where this program is being enacted is public makes it objectionable, because taxpayer dollars are being used to fund it.
Middle school students fall between the ages of 12 and 15, an age where peer pressure can cause students to do things they later regret. While it has not been shown that easy access to birth control increases sexual activity among students, it certainly doesn’t deter them or require them to carefully consider their options. Instead of dispensing these pills, the school should focus on a comprehensive sexual education curriculum that informs the students of the risks involved with sexual activity as well as the side effects of birth control. If a school district decides that it is absolutely necessary that it provide guidance and assistance to students who require contraception, it should give them information about outside organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, that could help rather than giving the pill to students directly.
Some may argue that parents sign a waiver that describes the services rendered by the clinic before their child can access it. But by pairing the distribution of contraception with access to quality medical care, the school board is forcing parents to make a cruel all-or-nothing choice.
In an age in which teens are becoming more sexually active at younger ages, it is important that our schools educate them about alternative options while still protecting those students who do choose to have sex. Though weighing the balance between protecting students and betraying parents can be difficult, this program clearly comes down on the side of the latter. Instead, the school should focus on education and providing access to outside resources, and leave the dispensing of free birth control to someone else.
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