Sunday, February 11, 2001

Limit sought for birth control

Officials say poor would lose out

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CRESTVIEW HILLS — Public health officials are concerned that members of Northern Kentucky's anti-abortion movement are attempting to end or disrupt family planning services — including the distribution of birth control pills and other contraceptives — at area health clinics.

        Two activists in the region's Right to Life effort — Kenton County Commissioner Barb Black of Taylor Mill and Boone County Commissioner Robert Hay of Florence — hold seats on the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department board.

        Mr. Hay, appointed to the board in 1999, has attempted to persuade fellow board members to remove contraceptives from clinics operated by the health department in Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant counties.

        Mrs. Black, a registered nurse appointed to the board last year, wants to restrict distribution of birth control pills and other contraceptives to minors, requiring clinics to seek parental approval. They both say the changes would encourage abstinence and improve communication in families.

        But some state and regional health officials warn the changes could leave several thousand low-income women in Northern Kentucky without access to birth control pills, other contraceptives and basic family planning services. They also warn that it could discourage federal funding for other health services at the clinics.

        “I think it'll affect a lot of teen-agers,” said Brooke Messmer, a 19-year-old wife and mother from Walton who has benefited from health department clinics.

        “It's very hard to go to your parents at 16 and say, "I want to be put on birth control.' The best thing about the clinic is you can go there, and they don't call your parents.”

        At age 17, Mrs. Messmer went to the department's clinic in Florence for birth control pills because her insurance didn't cover them and she couldn't afford them.

        The district's public health director, George Graham, recently took a job as deputy commissioner of Medicaid services for the state, partly in response to the proposed changes.

Poor hurt the most
        Mr. Graham warned that restrictions on the health department's family planning programs could jeopardize about $160,000 a year in federal “Title 10” funds.

        “The issue, to me, is ... the majority of the women who use Title 10 funds are also the population that is at the lower end of our socio-economic scale,” Mr. Graham said. “The women who are hurt most are the women who need the service the most, because they do not have the financial ability to get it any place else.”

        Mr. Hay and Mrs. Black said Mr. Graham is exaggerating.

        Mr. Hay called Mr. Graham's comments “a red herring, as red as you can get.” As far as the federal government yanking funding, “I'll believe it when I see it,” he added.

        Kentucky's Health Commissioner, Dr. Rice Leach, believes it. In a recent interview, he predicted that any changes or major cutbacks in family planning services would jeopardize the health district's Title 10 funding.

        “This is not a good thing,” Dr. Leach said in the interview, “because a public entity is taking it upon itself to make it more difficult for people who are otherwise entitled to federally guaranteed services to get them.”

        In September, Mr. Hay proposed a measure to the board that would have prevented health department clinics from distributing “abortifacients” — drugs or agents that cause an abortion — including birth control pills. The measure failed 11-10, with Mrs. Black voting against it.

        Mrs. Black said she believes clinics should be able to dispense birth control pills to women, “but I don't believe they should be given to minors.”

        She said she would support a measure requiring parental notification and consent before clinics give birth control pills to girls.

Unsafe sex
        Besides birth control pills, Mr. Hay said he is also against the distribution of condoms because they give a “false impression” of safe sex.

[photo] Dr. Susy Kramer, medical director of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        Dr. Susy Kramer, the health district's medical director, said the district's education program has always asserted that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But when schools have asked for it, information about contraception also is included, she said, “though we do not give a message of safe sex.”

        In September, the health board voted to discontinue two of its sex education programs designed for middle and high school students. A newly formed committee, Human Sexuality Education Committee, which includes Mrs. Black, is designing a new curriculum that does not teach about contraception.

        Final board approval of the new curriculum could come at the board's March 21 meeting.

        “These are programs that show the benefit of not being sexually active,” Mrs. Black said. “We're expanding those programs and choosing the ones that are going to help change the ideas, attitudes and actions of the teen-agers in Northern Kentucky.”

        But if that means fewer services and no education about contraceptives, they may accomplish the opposite of what they hope, Mr. Graham predicted, and create a greater potential for more unwanted pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted illnesses.

       Enquirer reporter Cindy Schroeder contributed to this report.


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