Pregnancy Notification Policy Alarms Some Health Experts

Health Officer Peter Beilenson says the policy may slow care.
Health Officer Peter Beilenson says the policy may slow care. (Katherine Frey - Twp)
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By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

A revised regulation that directs Howard County school officials to notify parents when students reveal they are pregnant has drawn criticism from health experts who say it violates a young woman's right to privacy and jeopardizes health care.

The policy and accompanying procedures appear to be among the strictest in the region.

Health experts say that students' willingness to seek care will decline.

"There's no question this will have a chilling effect on kids coming forward," said County Health Officer Peter Beilenson. "It's going to slow down health care."

Howard's policy "really pushes the issue of informing the parents, when state law says minors have the right to make decisions independent of the parents," said Deborah Chilcoat, an education and training specialist for Planned Parenthood of Maryland and co-chair of a county coalition on adolescent sexuality and reproductive health. "It's not going to be in the best interests of young people in Howard County," she said.

The Maryland State Department of Education provides no clear mandate on parental notification, so rules vary. Some school systems leave it to students to tell parents about a pregnancy. Others leave the decision to school nurses.

Under Howard's regulations, approved last month by the Board of Education, any school employee who learns that a student is or might be pregnant is to notify the school counselor or nurse.

If the pregnancy is confirmed and the parents don't know, the counselor or nurse helps the student tell them. Although the rules do not specify a time frame, Frank Aquino, chairman of the Board of Education, said it probably would occur "in a matter of a few days." The regulations take effect July 1.

Mary Shaw, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County schools, said that system does not disclose pregnancies, "but we do everything in our power to get the student to disclose the information directly to parents." Prince George's County follows a similar policy. Anne Arundel County regards parental notification as a matter for the student.

In Montgomery County, school employees such as a principal or counselor must report to parents on any matter they think puts a student at risk, and that can include pregnancy, schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison said. But a school nurse can use professional judgment in deciding whether to inform parents, said Judy Covich, director of School Health Services for the county Department of Health and Human Services.

Maryland's minor consent law, which applies to those younger than 18, says teenagers do not have to inform parents to receive health services, including pregnancy testing, contraceptives and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

State law requires a parent or guardian to be notified before a minor has an abortion, but it also allows circumstances in which parents need not be informed. They include when the physician has determined that the minor is capable of giving informed consent or when the minor is threatened with abuse.

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