Teen pregnancy and the law

Unwanted pregnancies among teen-age Americans have become a tragic challenge even in an age of relatively free and confidential access to birth control information and devices.It is not unexpected that family planning agencies should take a lead in opposing any obstacle to this access. Now their target is a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) rule that requires some 5,000 federally funded family planning centers to inform the parents of anyone under 18 who receives a prescription contraceptive. Unless the opposition is successful, the rule will go into effect Feb. 25. Ironically, its implementation would fall to Margaret Heckler, the President's appointee as HHS secretary, who opposed the rule when she was in Congress.

Before going further into the legal controversy no one can overlook what the present situation says about the fundamental answers. Counseling and clinics are obviously not enough in themselves. There is no substitute for the moral and spiritual sensitivity that combines respect for oneself with regard for others in every human relationship. Here is where parents can play their key role in helping young people develop firm and compassionate standards.

Congress has in effect recognized this parental role.It legislated that the services of federally funded family planning centers be open to all without hindrance. Then in 1981 it amended the law to require that family participation be encouraged when services are provided to minors. The centers favor this participation and claim they encourage it now. But HHS has leaped from such encouragement to a mandate that these agencies must notify parents - not before filling birth control prescriptions but within ten working days afterward. Thus it looks less like a preventive measure than a punitive one.

What concerns the agencies is that some teen-agers will simply risk pregnancy instead of going to the clinic. And these would tend to be poorer young women, ones less able to care for a child without welfare.

Last spring the view was offered in this space that, if the administration wants to revise the family planning law, it would be wise to seek new legislation rather than to try to do so through rules certain to be legally challenged. HHS went ahead with scheduling the rules, and last week they were challenged in various court suits. When a governmental action raises so many questions of privacy and discrimination, not to mention legality under present law, congressional decisionmaking remains preferable to administrative fiat. Best of all, of course, is that moral steadfastiness of everyone concerned which would keep the responsibility with individuals and families where it belongs.

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