The Norplant Option

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Aug. 29 1996 3:30 AM

The Norplant Option

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

Now that Congress and President Clinton have opted to use the threat of utter destitution to dissuade poor teen-agers and women from having children on the public dole, it's time to revive a more humane, and perhaps more effective, proposal with the same objective.

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This idea surfaced briefly and spectacularly in 1990, when the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested in an editorial that perhaps some welfare mothers should be "offered an increased benefit" if they would agree to practice effective birth control--specifically, to use the then-new Norplant contraceptive, which prevents pregnancy for five years after being implanted under the skin of the upper arm.

An uproar followed. The editorial writers--who had insensitively suggested a desire to reduce births of poor black babies in particular--were savaged by many Inquirer staffers and others as racist advocates of eugenics, even of "genocide." They also caught it from some abortion-rights zealots, who are suspicious of any government efforts to influence reproductive choices, and from conservatives, who think the only proper way to discourage teen pregnancy is to preach abstinence. The newspaper abjectly apologized for a "misguided and wrongheaded editorial opinion." And ever since, the whole subject has been taboo.

But it's still a good idea, for poor girls and women themselves, and for the rest of us. Millions of babies are being born to poor teen-agers so lacking in elementary skills, work habits, and self-discipline that they are unlikely to be either responsible parents or self-supporting providers. Many of these babies grow up in squalor and themselves become dependent denizens of the welfare culture.

The only realistic hope for breaking the bleak cycle of teen pregnancy and welfare dependency is to find ways to persuade poor teen-agers not to have babies--at least, not until they are old enough, and capable enough, and self-supporting enough to provide a decent home life. But nobody--nobody--has any great ideas for realizing this hope, short of reverting to the cruelest, let-'em-starve brand of social Darwinism.

Thoughtful progressives like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., have properly stressed the need to push welfare mothers into jobs and job-training programs. This makes sense because some of these women will rise to the occasion, learn the work ethic, and become self-supporting. And others may be dissuaded from having children by the prospect of being required to work. But (as Moynihan acknowledges) many welfare mothers are so crippled by their own early childhood environments as to be essentially unemployable, no matter how well-financed and well-run the jobs programs and related counseling, training, and child-care programs.

And under the harsh new welfare reform, the jobs programs will not be well financed. It appears that millions of welfare mothers and children will simply be cut off--unable to get or hold jobs, and left to beg from relatives and strangers, to steal what they can, even to sleep on the streets, depending on how much Calcutta-style misery the taxpayers are willing to tolerate.

Given the stark ugliness of trying to end the welfare culture by spreading homelessness and hunger, it's especially striking that one pretty good, pretty humane idea has been virtually ignored in the welfare debate of the past year.

In a small effort to reopen discussion of this option, here's a specific proposal: States should experiment with programs in which all qualifying teen-agers and women would be offered lump-sum $1,000 cash payments--on top of any other benefits they receive--to have Norplant (or another long-term contraceptive) implanted at government expense. They would be free to have it removed whenever they chose, but would be rewarded with additional payments (of, say, $30) for each month in which they kept it.

The category of qualifying teen-agers and women could include all recipients of welfare or other public assistance (including daughters of recipients) who are competent to give informed consent to the implant procedure. Or the program could be restricted in various ways in order to blunt possible objections. For example, you could require parental consent. Or, eligibility could be restricted to those who have already been pregnant, or at least sexually active; to those over age 13, or under age 21; or some combination thereof.

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