Six Months After Maine Birth Control Controversy,Only One Middle School Student Got Contraceptive

For all the media firestorm surrounding the decision to make prescription contraceptives available at King Middle School, only one girl has used the service in the six months since the program began, officials say.

Last fall, administrators said they anticipated only a handful of older middle schoolers would use the service, even though it was open to all students enrolled in the clinic, including those as young as 11.

As of Thursday, the six-month anniversary of the School Committee vote that implemented the program, the only student to obtain a prescription for contraceptives was a 14-year-old girl, the city reported in response to a Freedom of Access request from The Associated Press.

"If it helps one student, who otherwise might be in a position of being at risk, then it's worth it," said Lisa Belanger, who oversees Portland's student health centers.

The School Committee's 7-2 vote made King Middle School the state's only middle school to provide a full range of prescription contraceptives.

The decision sparked a debate across the city that soon turned into a national discussion over the wisdom of providing contraceptives in middle schools.

One concern was that students who have their parents' permission to use King Middle School's city-run health clinic could receive contraceptives without their parents' knowledge. Under Maine law, mental health, substance abuse and reproductive health issues are confidential.

Local parents have remained supportive of the program, however, and the number of kids with permission to use the clinic is largely unchanged, Principal Michael McCarthy said.

"I think most young teenagers who have a close relationship with their parents are talking to their parents about these things," said Dr. Ellen Popenoe, a psychologist who has a daughter at King Middle School. The clinic provides a safety net for those who can't, she said.

Last fall, 169 out of the 500 students had permission to use the clinic. After the policy change, parents were required to re-enroll their kids. As of Thursday, there were 163 students enrolled in the clinic, said Douglas Gardner, director of the city's Health and Human Services Department.

Nationally, about a quarter of school-based health clinics serving adolescents provide some type of contraceptive, usually condoms, and most of those are high schools, according to the National Assembly on School Based Health Care.

Only a handful of middle schools provide access to a full range of prescription contraceptives, said Divya Mohan, the organization's spokeswoman. But school health clinics tend to tailor their services in response to a community need, she noted.

In Portland's case, five 14- and 15-year-old girls who used the clinic at King Middle School reported being sexually active and one student became pregnant in the year before the School Committee decided to make birth control available.

The full-service health clinic run by nurse-practitioners and pediatricians operates out of a converted utility closet where there are telephone circuits on one wall. The school nurse can refer students to the clinic for a variety of health problems.

Critics continue to have concerns about the program.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland supports a bill that'll be considered by lawmakers next year requiring parental permission for minors to receive prescription contraceptives, though there's an escape clause for kids who'd be put in danger by going to their parents for permission.

And Michael Heath of the Christian Civic League of Maine said he remains troubled by the thought that young girls could be given contraceptives even though state law defines sex with a nonspousal minor under 14 as gross sexual assault.

Heath is among critics who believe there's no way the policy regarding contraceptives can be amended. Instead, they say schools shouldn't be dispensing birth control.

"There's no circumstance where a school should be providing contraception to kids," Heath said. "It shouldn't happen under any circumstances."

At King, things have simmered down from the time last fall when TV live trucks were parked outside and pundits were weighing in on the policy. All of the attention only served to bring parents and students together, said McCarthy, the principal.

One positive aspect of the attention on King was that it served to open discussion between parents and their teens about sex, McCarthy said.