What They Don't Know Might Hurt Them

Schools Infringing on Parents' Rights, and Doing It Secretly

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By Rebecca Oas, PhD

WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 18, 2012 (Zenit.org).- In 2010, an article appeared in the UK newspaper The Telegraph reacting to a proposal to cut government funding for a certain beverage in schools. The author made the argument that the drink might be "doing more harm than good" and cited "negative side effects," while noting that his viewpoint was heard relatively rarely in comparison to the large industry which vigorously promoted its product through advertising and with the support of government subsidies[1]. The substance in question was milk, which would seem on the surface to be more innocuous than those fearsome beverages that have also come under fire for being available in schools in recent years, soft drinks[2]. 

While the role of government in regulating access to these beverages in schools has varied, a key factor influencing school policies is the input of parents. A 2005 survey found that parents of adolescents had strong opinions regarding nutrition in schools, and encouraged health professionals in school settings to engage with parents in promoting good nutrition within the school environment[3]. While it may not be practical or even possible for a parent to monitor everything a child consumes while at school, this fact reflects only that substances like milk or soft drinks are widely available, and not subject to additional restrictions under the law. Furthermore, parents are not expressly prohibited from knowing their children's dietary habits by mandate of either the school or the government. 

However, while parents' input may be welcomed with regard to students' intake of sugar, substances available only by prescription are being distributed to students at school-based clinics without their parents' knowledge or consent. Recent reports from both the US and the UK reveal that students are receiving oral and implanted contraceptives while on school property, through government-funded initiatives.

A story aired on National Public Radio in March, discussing a provision of the new health care law that increases funding for school-based health centers, which exist to treat sick students, but which are also widely used to distribute condoms and oral contraceptives to students[4]. The story focused on one such clinic located in California, where, according to state law, students older than 12 years of age can legally obtain prescribed contraceptives without their parents' knowledge or permission. While the legal right of minors to obtain prescribed contraceptives confidentially differs by state, 21 states explicitly allow minors to give consent to contraceptive services, meaning that parental consent, and consequently, knowledge, is not required[5]. This is reflective of an international trend: in February, The Telegraph reported a story describing British girls as young as 13 being fitted with contraceptive implants at school clinics without the knowledge of their parents, and without consulting the students' primary physicians[6]. Given that the introduction of these implants requires minor surgery, many parents were outraged. Just as in the US, this UK initiative was supported by a government effort to reduce teenage pregnancy.

While the use of contraceptive measures to prevent pregnancy is in clear violation of the Church's teaching, these examples touch upon another key issue: the duties of parents and the larger society toward children, including older minors still under their parents' legal guardianship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The family must be helped and defended by appropriate social measures. Where families cannot fulfill their responsibilities, other social bodies have the duty of helping them and of supporting the institution of the family. Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family's prerogatives or interfere in its life"[7]. Furthermore, in his 1994 Letter to Families, Blessed John Paul II writes, "Only in those situations where the family is not really self-sufficient does the State have the authority and duty to intervene"[8]. It is notable that in neither of the cases recently reported were the parents of these minors who were given contraceptives deemed to be in any way unfit or lacking in self-sufficiency.

It is worthwhile to note that the controversy regarding milk distribution in schools was in reference to children five and under, and the distribution of contraceptives is occurring among minors 13 and older. Clearly, society recognizes that personal responsibility increases as a child becomes more capable of making his or her own decisions, as evidenced by the fact that minors can be held liable for criminal activity. One might question whether UK policy is logically consistent, however, when girls of 13 can be implanted with contraceptive devices without parental knowledge, yet they must wait until the age of 18 to get a tattoo. Similarly, in the US, a parent or guardian must not only give consent, but must physically accompany a minor under 17 who wishes to go to a movie with a "Restricted" rating. It would seem that government regulations are frequently willing to defer to the wishes of parents with regard to the health and well-being of their children – except where their reproductive capability is concerned. Moreover, as numerous independent studies as well as the labeling of hormonal contraceptives clearly demonstrate, their use is not without risks and carries the potential for negative side effects. Dispensing pills or implanted devices to students in their early teens without consulting parents or primary physicians increases the likelihood that important information regarding familial medical history or other medications being used concurrently might not be taken into account.

The final argument in The Telegraph article criticizing the policy of offering free milk in schools states: "no other species in nature regularly consumes another's milk"[1]. While this might seem to be a poor measure by which to judge much of human activity, it cannot be denied that, unlike cow's milk, the synthetic hormones in contraceptive pills, which are known as progestins, do not occur naturally, and no other species regularly takes active steps to limit its fecundity. Nevertheless, parents who entrust their children to educational institutions rightly have concerns regarding their children's exposure and access to many things on school grounds, from substances such as cow's milk or contraceptive pills to controversial curricula. That this access may occur without their knowledge is a troubling thought to many parents, but that such information is deliberately being kept from them constitutes a dangerous shift in the role of the parent and the state in safeguarding the well-being of those who are not yet legally adults.

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Rebecca Oas, Ph.D., is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. Dr. Oas is a postdoctoral fellow in genetics and molecular biology at Emory University. She writes for HLI America's Truth and Charity Forum.

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(1) Marszal, Andrew. Free school milk: the white stuff might not be the right stuff. The Telegraph. August 17, 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/7949773/Free-school-milk-the-white-stuff-might-not-be-the-right-stuff.html

(2) Hawkes, Corinna. The worldwide battle against soft drinks in schools. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2010.

(3) Kubik, M.Y., Lytle, L.A., Story, M. Soft Drinks, Candy, and Fast Food: What Parents and Teachers Think about the Middle School Food Environment. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005.

(4) Weiss, Kelley. Health Centers At Schools Get A Funding Boost. National Public Radio, March 6, 2012. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/03/06/148066270/la-school-health-centers

(5) Minors' Access to Contraceptive Services. The Guttmacher Institute. April 1, 2012. http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_MACS.pdf

(6) Girls, 13, given contraceptive implants at school. The Telegraph. February 7, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9065998/Girls-13-given-contraceptive-implants-at-school.html

(7) Catechism of the Catholic Church: #2209. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P7T.HTM

(8) Pope John Paul II. Letter to Families (Gratissimam sane) 1994.  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_02021994_families_en.html