THE ADMINISTRATION has proposed that family planning clinics be required to notify parents of teen-agers 17 and under who receive prescription contraceptives. Both parents would have to be found and notified, even if living separately, and the clinic would be required to prove that the notice was received. If adopted, the requirement would override state laws in 30 states and the District that affirm the rights of minors to receive family planning services confidentially.
For all the hollering the suggestion has inspired on both sides of the issue, this is not a debate between those who favor and those who oppose parents' involvement in matters affecting their children's health and their sexual activities. Congress, the administration and, we assume, nearly all parents are agreed that parental involvement and guidance would be a great help in what are clearly consequential and often ruinous situations. As it is, many, if not most, clinics encourage teen-age patients to consult their parents. Just over half of the teen-agers who visit family planning clinics report that their parents know of their visits. Nor is this-- though it often sounds that way--a debate between those who think teen-age sex is a bad idea and those who are neutral or afraid to disapprove. There are precious few, we think, in the latter category.
The real question is what will be the effect of the mandatory notification on teen-agers whose parents do not know of their sexual activity and use of contraceptives. Will it promote discussion between child and parent and eventually reduce the number of sexually active teen-agers, as its proponents hope? Or, as its opponents believe, will the proposal simply increase the fraction who do not use effective means of contraception?
In a heavily studied field, there is no evidence that the availability of contraceptives either encourages or deters sexual activity. But it heavily influences the likelihood of pregnancy. A survey of teen- agers in family planning clinics showed that if parental notice was the price of a prescription contraceptive, 20 percent would continue their sexual activities with little or no protection. Only 2 percent said they would abstain.
The case for the required notification rests heavily on the health risks of prescription contraceptives, which means the risks of the pill since 95 percent of teen-age patients choose this method. The pill does have health risks, especially for smokers, but these risks are lower for teen-agers than for older women, and the pill is far safer than pregnancy and childbirth. For both physical and social reasons a teen-ager's pregnancy is considered by obstetricians to be a high-risk pregnancy. The risk of death to the baby is much higher than at any other age, including for mothers over 40. The social consequences of teen-age motherhood, including unfinished education, broken marriages and unemployment are well documented and dismal.
There seems little reason to doubt that the proposed regulation, whatever its original intent, would mean more pregnancies among teen-agers and more abortions. Balancing that risk against whatever benefits it may produce makes the case against the proposal.