Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker is embroiled in controversy over the comparative rights of parents and children. The controversy concerns changes in regulations requiring notification of parents whose minor children 17 and under are given prescription contraceptives by federally funded agencies.
As a mother of five children and a worker with pregnant teen-agers, I support Secretary Schweiker. I believe that while minor children have rights, parents have rights too. These rights include the right at least to know when their children are embarking on any course that is hazardous to their health and well- being; the right to know when secrets are being encouraged that can destroy family communication and family trust.
What are the facts about these regulations?
First, the regulations require parental notification within 10 days of the provision of contraceptive materials to the minor child.
Second, they apply only to prescription methods of contraception; that is, pills, diaphragms and IUDs. They do not apply to non-prescription methods such as condoms or spermicides. They do not apply to family planning information, counseling or testing for pregnancy.
Third, they specifically protect the child by withholding parental notification that could result in physical abuse, ejection from the home or similar harm.
There are two strong reasons for the proposed regulations.
The first is to alert parents to the possible hazards to the health of their children through the use of contraceptive pills or IUDs.
These hazards range from a significant increase in pelvic infections, uterine inflammations and ectopic pregnancies among adolescents to a variety of long-term hazards to health associated with the pill, including hypertension, blood clotting problems, pulmonary embolisms, tumors and strokes, to name just a few.
No parents should be kept in the dark about their children's exposure to such dangers. No physician should be asked to treat a child without knowing she is on the pill. No child should be encouraged to bear such risks, including always the risk of pregnancy, alone and in secret.
But the argument concerning hazards to health is only one reason why these regulations should be approved. The second and more compelling reason is that notification can expand and strengthen the support system of the family. It rejects the notion that there is a natural antagonism between the generations.
A leading family therapist, Dr. Salvadore Minuchin, has said, "I have found that the great majority of parents are concerned with their children's well-being. Intervening within the family network is a support for adolescents. For what we are addressing is their growth and development into maturity."
When children are on drugs or alcohol, when they are driving recklessly or perform acts of vandalism, it is the parents who are held accountable. Will anyone say that they are less accountable for actions that can harm the emotional and physical health of a 13-, 14- or 15-year-old girl, perhaps for life, or expose her to the risk of pregnancy, injury or disease?
Some say that counseling the adolescent is the answer. I have found that counseling the child without the parents is empty and futile. It perpetuates misunderstandings and widens the gulf between generations. What is more, it does not work.
There are, however, some significant examples where mobilizing the family support system has made a difference. Families have intervened to reduce significantly the use of marijuana among high school students because they were concerned about the health of their children. This same mobilization of the family support network is also possible in the area of sexual activity among children. Moral discourse should be fostered between generations which affirms that good sexual relationships are built on the human values of love, commitment and family--and yes, even marriage, though this idea may seem remote and old-fashioned.
In the adolescent pregnancy programs I have worked with such as the one at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, research has shown that when the family is involved, the young women are more likely to stay and finish school, have a better chance of getting a job, are less likely to have an early repeat pregnancy, are more likely to take better care of their babies and have more respect for themselves. If this type of family support works with adolescents already pregnant, why shouldn't it work for the non-pregnant teen-ager?
The new regulations will encourage this kind of family network and support system for families, and will give parents the chance to decide the course of action they will take when they are aware of their childrens' sexual lives. They can choose to do nothing, but I believe the vast majority will deal with the situation responsibly and with love. I believe also that most children will be relieved that an intense and troubling part of their lives does not have to be lived in secret.
At the very least, our nation's laws and regulations should give parents the chance to communicate with and support their children. This is what the new regulations seek to accomplish. Then, it is up to us as parents to provide the kind of understanding, moral guidance and protective love that will make us a community of caring, not a society of coldness, secrecy and misunderstanding. This is the least we can do for our children and for ourselves.
The writer is executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.