Last year Congress amended family planning legislation to require that family participation be encouraged when federally funded private or public family planning centers provide services to young people. Now the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed regulations to mandate parental notification in a manner which the amendment did not intend. Some 50 days are left for public comment that must be considered before the regulations are final. The wisest outcome would be for the administration to seek legislation if it wishes to revise the law, rather than to try to do so with rules that are certain to be legally challenged.
To be sure, the regulation tries to walk a tightrope within the law - but thus undercuts its own effort to ensure parental involvement in the serious decision of using prescription contraceptive drugs or devices. The rule does not say that a center must inform parents before supplying such materials to minors under the age of 18. It says parents must be informed within 10 working days afterwards. This may be an attempt to satisfy the law's mandate to provide such services without hindrance, but it brings parents in only after the die is cast.
Planned Parenthood and other sponsors of family planning centers are all in favor of encouraging family participation in such decisions. They question the worth of enforced notification of parents when there is not sufficiently open family communication for the young people to talk with their parents themselves. They are concerned that the upshot would be many teen-agers simply deciding against going to the centers.
As it is, the rate of pregnancy among teen-agers having sexual relations has been falling. The absolute numbers have stayed tragically high because more teen-agers are having sexual relations and at younger ages. The annual total of teen-age pregnancies had reached about a million in 1978 when the family planning legislation was first passed. HHS estimates that some 500,000 adolescents of 17 years and under now receive prescription drugs or devices from the federally funded centers.
Exceptions to notifying parents would be permitted when it is judged that they would do physical harm to their child. This starkly hints at the home circumstances from which come many of the young people seeking help. Birth-control counselors who favor restraint in sexual relations find that some of the young people turn to sex in hopeless reaction to bleak futures, swayed by the relentless glamorization of sex by the media.
Beyond rules and legislation the United States needs to cleanse its cultural climate, enlist the family and society in shoring up the family values that are so far superior to clinical assistance, however humane.
Loving parents naturally feel a responsibility for guiding their children toward respect for themselves and others in all human relationships, including those between the sexes. They seek to set and exemplify standards of morality in sexual relations as the fundamental way to foster genuine affection and prevent the sad consequences of uncertain standards. They seek to establish the freedom of family communication that permits the sharing of joys and the solving of problems. Here, not in Washington, lie the best answers.