Birth Control by Law

JUST three weeks after the Food and Drug Administration gave its approval to a contraceptive that prevents pregnancy for five years, a judge in Visalia, Calif., devised a novel use for the hormone. He sentenced a young mother convicted of child abuse to a year in prison and three years on probation. During probation, he said, she must have the birth control device, called Norplant, surgically implanted in her arm. At first glance, Superior Court Judge Howard Broadman's conditional sentence might appear to have merit. If a mother can't care for the children she already has, the reasoning goes, why should she bear more?

But then a chilling second thought occurs: Who should be allowed to control a woman's reproductive cycle, and for what reasons? If abusive mothers are targets today, will teenagers and welfare recipients be added to the list tomorrow? The specter of judges or government officials dictating the circumstances of pregnancy gives ominous new meaning to the term birth control.

Last month the Philadelphia Inquirer caused a firestorm when it ran an editorial headlined ``Poverty and Norplant - Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?'' The editorial proposed offering incentives to poor mothers to use Norplant, thus reducing the nation's welfare burden. Outraged readers and staff members charged that the proposal was racist and sexist. The furor continued until editors took the unusual step of publishing a follow-up editorial of apology.

At present, men face no similar threat of reproductive control, although that could change if a male contraceptive implant, now being developed, becomes available. The closest parallel for men occurred in the early '80s, when courts in several states considered allowing convicted rapists to shorten their prison sentences by taking a drug that decreases the male libido. Legal scholars argued that this ``chemical castration'' would violate a man's right to privacy. The Michigan Supreme Court also ruled that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Similar charges could be made about giving courts sovereignty over women's reproductive capabilities. When the long arm of the law reaches as far as the womb, forbidding pregnancy, the concept of autonomy over one's body is dangerously compromised.

The late '80s gave rise to a disturbing new way of dealing with women who were regarded as problems to society. Law enforcement officials favored punishment rather than rehabilitation. Instead of offering counseling or treatment to pregnant drug users, for instance, the prevailing attitude was: Throw them in jail.

If the '80s solution was to lock up errant mothers, will the '90s solution be to lock up their wombs, putting women under what could be termed reproductive house arrest?

It is a danger Margaret Atwood foresees in ``The Handmaid's Tale,'' an allegory about a new social order in which conception and childbearing are dictated by the state. Despite the nightmarish evidence around her, one of Ms. Atwood's characters says bravely, ``Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death.''

Then again, maybe it is.

Questions still exist about the long-term safety of Norplant - questions worth asking in view of medical problems that have resulted from other implants, such as intra-uterine birth control devices and silicone breast implants. But equally important are the legal and moral questions Judge Broadman's ruling raises.

Sheldon Segal, the director of the team of scientists who developed Norplant, has stated publicly that he is ``totally and unalterably opposed'' to any use of the implant for ``coercive sterilization or birth control.''

There is no justification for child abuse. But the judge's Orwellian approach to the problem fails to consider family-oriented solutions.

Distraught parents need counseling, not humiliation, to help them change destructive behavior and strengthen fragile families. They need to understand reproductive responsibility, certainly, but without the loss of dignity that accompanies reproductive coercion.

New technology can never solve longstanding social problems. To pretend otherwise is an affront to human rights that will create more difficulties than it solves.

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