Row over city school where baby comes too: Baltimore's attempt to keep teenage mothers in the classroom is under fierce attack, writes David Usborne

Click to follow
THERE IS nothing usual about Baltimore's Laurence Paquin High School. Though located in one of the city's harshest northeast neighbourhoods, its corridors gleam, and are filled with displays of classroom projects and pink paper hearts to herald Valentine's Day. They also echo to the sounds of small babies.

All the students here are teenage girls, aged 13 to 19, who are either pregnant or already have one or more children. That in itself makes Paquin, with in-house pre-natal counselling and kindergarten facilities, almost unknown in America. What has brought it renewed fame, however, is the introduction into the school clinic of the contraceptive implant device, Norplant.

Shaped like six small match-sticks, Norplant capsules are inserted beneath the skin in the underarm, and gradually release a contraceptive hormone that blocks ovulation for up to five years. To its promoters Norplant, which was approved for use in America two years ago, simply offers one more weapon in the fight against unwanted childbirth in a city where, in 1990, one in 10 girls aged between 15 and 17 delivered a baby.

The city health department which, with some private charity foundations, is sponsoring the cost - about dollars 500 (pounds 330) per recipient - has said it hopes to extend the programme to other schools in the area where unwanted childbirth is a particular problem.

The plan, though, has triggered an outcry from churches and some city politicians who are warning darkly of social engineering, with the curbing of the underclass black population as the hidden agenda.

The debate has been not a little stirred by Maryland's sometimes unorthodox state governor, William Schaeffer. In his new year address to the state legislature he suggested, albeit tentatively, that men and women on welfare who already have several illegitimate children might have sterilisation forced on them. Men, particularly those released from prison, would be given vasectomies and women would be given the Norplant procedure. Those who declined would have their welfare support withdrawn.

In his speech, the Governor implicitly conceded that blacks would be the main target of such a policy. 'There's a real reluctance to push for a really extreme step in birth control because of concern about being called racist or too radical,' he said. Baltimore is 60 per cent black, and blacks make up 86 per cent of those accepting welfare. There are few white faces at the Paquin school: here, 90 per cent of the students are black.

'We're concerned about social control,' says Melvin Tuggle, a Baptist minister who is leading a coalition of 230 churches in east Baltimore which allege that the Norplant programme for schools was approved by white council members without any consultations with black community leaders.

Dick Dowling of the Maryland Catholic Conference went further: 'If first the government insists that poor people can't have babies, who's next? Are minority groups next? Are disabled groups next?'

In addition, there are the voices, also largely from the churches, claiming that offering a still greater variety of contraception to teenagers amounts to condoning promiscuity. Others equate the use of Norplant with genocide.

The Paquin clinic offers the students, at no charge, the pill, condoms and other insertion devices. The girls are counselled always to use condoms to escape sexually transmitted diseases. In a frequent ritual, whole classes are asked how Aids can be avoided. The girls chant: 'Condoms, condoms, condoms.'

The school principal, Loretta Stith, has no time for the critics. Her task is to keep young mothers in the school. 'They call that genocide? Taking girls out of school so they can just sit at home for the rest of their lives - that's educational genocide,' Dr Stith replies. 'Morality is one thing and reality is another. And this is reality we're dealing with here, not some kind of dress rehearsal. A girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.'

So far only one girl has undergone the implant procedure in the small clinic next to Dr Stith's office where, if necessary, babies can be delivered. But Dr Stith insists there is no controversy among the students about Norplant. It is simply another contraceptive option. One girl, Rachel, 15, says she plans to use Norplant soon. Another, Cynthia, 16, says she does not want to because she does not like the idea of foreign capsules in her body.

'We're running a car dealership here,' says Dr Stith. 'Some might choose an open-topped Cadillac, but others don't want their hair all messed up. So they go for something else. No big deal.'

Even she, though, winces when reminded of Governor Schaeffer's ideas for mandatory sterlisation. 'Well, I think that's taking reality too far.'