The Norplant Option

articles
Aug. 29 1996 3:30 AM

The Norplant Option

A sensible, humane alternative that wasn't even considered during the welfare-reform debate.

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Plaintiffs' tort lawyers have nearly killed off Norplant, scaring away many women and doctors, by a torrent of personal-injury suits against its manufacturer. The lawyers include many of the same folks who created a tidal wave of litigation based on the apparently bogus claim about the dangers of silicone breast implants. But the Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly found Norplant to be safe and effective. More than a million women have used it with only minor side effects, such as changing menstrual bleeding patterns, reported.

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There have been complaints by a small percentage of Norplant users of severe pain or scarring from having it removed. But the apparent reason was inadequate training of physicians in the (usually quick and painless) removal procedure--an easily remedied problem--and not any inherent defect in the product.

It is sexist to seek to thrust contraception only upon women.

Sexism has nothing to do with it. First, almost all welfare checks are written to women--not to men, who don't get pregnant. Second, the only forms of contraception now available for men are condoms and vasectomies. It would hardly make sense to hand out $1,000 payments to men for taking home a bunch of condoms, or to try to police their use. And a vasectomy--unlike a Norplant implant-- cannot always be reversed.

Giving teen-agers contraceptives encourages promiscuity, and bribing them to use Norplant will encourage it even more.

The weight of the evidence suggests that teen-agers' decisions whether or not to engage in sexual activity don't have much to do with whether the government gives them contraceptives. Many have unprotected sex, and almost all can get contraceptives if they want them. As I have suggested, one possible restriction (although not one I would favor) on any Norplant incentive program would be to limit eligibility to teen-agers who have already been pregnant or, at least, sexually active. Norplant counselors could also stress the benefits of abstinence, while presenting the contraceptive as a backup safeguard.

Teen-agers should learn about sex and contraception from their parents, not the government.

A parental-consent requirement would answer this objection. I would not advocate such a requirement, however, because of the overwhelming evidence that many parents have little or no constructive communication with their children about such matters. I hope that my own two daughters (now 12 and nine years old) would consult with me and my wife before getting Norplant or becoming sexually active. But if they end up deciding to go their own ways, I'd rather that they have unrestricted access to Norplant than that they risk pregnancy.

Would a Norplant program be thwarted by the fact that many poor teen-agers actually want to get pregnant and have a child? I don't think so. First, there are about 3 million unwanted pregnancies in the United States every year, half of which end in abortion. Many of these involve teen-agers and women who are (or will be) on welfare. Norplant could stop almost all these. Second, the allure of pregnancy for many other poor teen-agers may be so slight, or so fleeting, or so fraught with ambivalence, that a $1,000 Norplant incentive would have plenty of takers.

And even if such a program only delayed pregnancies a few years, that would be a very good thing. Most 15-year-olds would be better mothers, and have a better chance of making something of their own lives, if they waited five or seven years before having babies.

Norplant is no panacea for poverty; nothing is. The question is whether a Norplant incentive program might do some good. There's only one way to find out: Give it a try. If it fails, the cost--in terms of numbers of teen-agers and women taking the $1,000 offer--will be tiny. And it just might help.

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