An independently-run health clinic at a middle school in Portland, Maine will soon be offering girls access to oral contraceptives after a school committee voted last week in favor of it. According to this NY Times article, the pills could be available to students by the end of the year.
The school’s clinic functions much like a physician’s office and has been offering condoms and testing for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases since 2000. It also offers dental, mental health and basic care.
Similar clinics run at Portland’s high schools have been offering prescription birth control to students for years, says Douglas Gardner, the city’s director of health and human services. Health officials decided to extend the policy to middle school after learning that 17 middle school students had become pregnant in the last four years, seven of them in the 2006-7 school year.
“These kids are far too young to be sexually active,” Mr. Gardner said. “You can’t argue that any differently. But there is a small group of kids, and thankfully it’s a small group, who are reporting that they are sexually active, and we need to do all we can to protect them.”
The Portland clinic is not the first in the country to offer such services. Four middle schools in Seattle offer reproductive health care through city-administered health centers, said James Apa, communications manager for Public Health-Seattle and King County. Clinics in six Baltimore middle schools offer access to oral contraceptives, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city’s health commissioner, who said the program had helped to decrease teenage pregnancy rates.
Although one-quarter of the nation’s school-based health clinics offer some type of contraception (most of them in high schools), less than one percent of schools provide oral contraception, the article says.
Parents in Portland who want their children to have access to the clinic must sign a waiver each year that details the services it offers, the article says. Under state law, reproductive health, mental health and substance abuse issues are confidential between medical provider and patient, regardless of the patient’s age. Parents will be asked to sign a new waiver in order for their child to receive the birth control pill.
Of the 500 students at King, 135 have permission to use the clinic, said Principal Michael McCarthy. Of those, five students, all of whom were 14 or 15, reported being sexually active in the last school year. One became pregnant. King is the only one of the city’s three middle schools that has a health clinic.
I’m a little torn about this. One the one hand, I like the progressive intent behind the idea. That is, whether we like it or not, the kids are having sex so let’s do what we can to help them protect themselves. But on the other hand, I think it does kind of send the message that adults are condoning it. In the end, I’d err on the side of offering the birth control, but I’d like to see lots of counseling to go along with it.
In the past, concerns have been raised over the link between teen sex and depression. But a study published last May in the American Journal of Sociology found that in general the two are not connected. However, for a small subset, girls 15-years-old or younger and boys 14 or younger, the study found that mental health problems can arise.
“Being female or younger than the average age at first-time sex among your peers increases the chance of depression, as does a lack of commitment or intimacy within the relationship and what happens to the relationship after first-time sex,” says Ann Meier, a University of Minnesota assistant professor of sociology and author of the study. “For girls in uncommitted relationships, ending a relationship with sex has more of an impact on mental health than ending that same relationship if it did not involve sex.”
In her study, Meier polled 8,563 7th- through 12th-graders students over an 18-month period, according to this online article. She compared the mental health of teens who didn’t have sex to teens who were virgins at the beginning of the study, but who lost their virginity during the 18-month period.
It’s kind of unimagineable to me to think of thirteen-year olds having sex. In truth, I really don’t want to think about it. So I applaud the adults in Portland, Maine for not burying their heads over this. I hope they’ll keep an eye on those kids though.