09.29.12

New York’s Plan B Outcry

Media attention has turned a city program aimed at reducing teenage pregnancies into a flashpoint of debate. Lizzie Crocker talks to the furious parents.

A birth control-battle is brewing in New York City over a program that distributes Plan B emergency contraception and hormonal birth control to high school students. 

City health officials say there were few complaints when the program was implemented in five public schools last January. But that was before The New York Post splashed an “exclusive” report on its front page last week. “NYC schools give out morning-after pills to students—without telling parents,” the paper screamed.

Now, the program, which has since spread to 13 schools, is facing widespread opposition and even potential legal backlash.

Five days after the Post ran its piece, the New York City Parents Choice Coalition gathered on the steps of City Hall to protest the now-controversial CATCH program, which stands for Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Healthcare. Comprised of more than a dozen New York City parent and religious groups, the coalition has focused its ire at the program’s “opt-out” policy for parents, arguing that they should have to “opt in” instead. 

On Monday, the coalition is launching a “robo-call” campaign that urges parents with concerns about the program to contact city officials.

“We’re working together on getting a bill introduced in both houses,” Mona Davids, president of the NYC Parents Union, told The Daily Beast. 

Forms to allow parents to opt out of CATCH were sent to parents, according to a health department spokesperson who said they were distributed “primarily via mail” as well as at PTA meetings and through students. But only 1 to 2 percent of parents have returned the form. And Davids insists many of the parents she’s contacted at CATCH-affiliated schools don’t recall receiving the letter at all. Meanwhile, The Parents Choice Coalition has penned its own letter to the Departments of Health and Education demanding that the program be suspended, considering taking legal action if they don’t get a few explanations: In what language(s) was this letter written in? Did it address possible side effects to Plan B and other forms of birth control? When and how will the city evaluate the efficacy of CATCH? 

“It’s not like an ATM machine...They have social workers available.”

They have a laundry list of objections, but their bottom line is that schools should take a more active role in informing parents about programs like CATCH. “It’s not the school system’s place to supercede a parent,” said Michael Benjamin, a former Bronx assemblyman and the executive director of the group, which led the charge against Mayor Bloomberg’s mandated sex-education program last year in favor of an optional abstinence-based program. “The city doesn’t even use opt-out or default consent for something as important as organ donation. And yet they’re making an exception here.” 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of the program, told reporters Monday that CATCH was “nothing new” and expressed surprise over the sudden controversy. He pointed to a 25 percent decrease in New York City’s teen pregnancy rates over the last 10 years, but said last year’s numbers were still alarmingly high: 7,000 girls under age 17 became pregnant, according to health officials. Ninety percent of those pregnancies were unplanned, and 64 percent were aborted. Of those who chose to carry their pregnancies to term, 70 percent dropped out of school. 

With these numbers in mind, easier access to Plan B in high schools  through CATCH seems like a no-brainer. The program is an extension of services that have been available for several years to roughly a quarter of all New York public school students through privately run health clinics. The 13 schools where the program is implemented were chosen because they’re located in neighborhoods that have high teen pregnancy rates or lack nearby clinics. CATCH employs doctors from the health department to prescribe contraceptives and permits nurses to dispense the morning-after pill. Since January, 567 students received Plan B and 580 students received the birth control pill Reclipsen through the program. 

“It’s not like an ATM machine,” said Joan Malin, president of Planned Parenthood New York City, another advocate. “They have social workers available. There’s a nurse, there’s counseling. It’s a good program. Parents can opt out of it, and if they don’t, their child has the right to confidential services under New York State law.”

Public high schools around the country have offered condoms for years, but the National Association of School Nurses told The Post it does not know of any program like CATCH in the U.S. 

Despite its good intentions, unanswered questions about the CATCH initiative are concerning to parents and health professionals, and may ultimately make the program more vulnerable to legal liability. One disgruntled mother at the participating High School of Fashion Industries seemed to be confused about the function of Plan B. “Parents should know if their daughter is pregnant,” she told The Post, despite the fact that Plan B is prescribed to prevent pregnancies, not to abort them. 

“My only caveat is that it’s the responsibility of the institution to make sure there’s a formal education component, particularly when you’re dealing with a variety of socio-economic backgrounds,” said Dr. Rebecca Brightman, a member of the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology and advisor on a recent Contraception in America survey, which found that 2 out of 5 reproductive aged women misuse birth control and a majority don’t know how Plan B works. 

Many women of all ages find they’re not suited to the birth control pill, which can have adverse side effects like weight gain or mood swings. For those who don’t have regular sexual partners, Plan B is a quick fix, which begs the question: will easier access to emergency contraception through CATCH make young girls more likely to misuse it?

“Yes, there will be some girls who will use it as birth control. That’s why education is key here,” said Brightman. “There’s no easy answer.”