San Bernardino County’s Move to Ban Emergency Contraception ‘Effectively’ Denied
Local health officials yesterday "effectively denied" an April request from the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to end the distribution of emergency contraception in county health clinics, a move "expected to draw the Bush administration into a volatile debate over women's rights," the Los Angeles Times reports. The county had "essentially" asked for a waiver of federal law that requires government agencies receiving federal family planning funds to provide EC. But the California Family Health Council, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group responsible for distributing federal family planning money, said in a "terse one-page letter" that the county did not demonstrate the "exceptional circumstances" necessary to grant that waiver. The county's April waiver request letter had "spelled out a variety of concerns" about EC, including worries that the pills were being given to minors. An analysis of county health records, however, showed that "the vast majority" of the 643 pills distributed in 2000 were given to poor adult women without insurance or access to family-planning counseling, not to teens. The county also argued that the high doses of estrogen contained in EC may have "painful side effects," that some women may be hypersensitive to the pills, and that the long term effects may not be known. But the county's "chief concern" was whether the pill should be considered a form of abortion, as many "conservative groups" contend. "[Our] motivation is based upon a desire to protect children in our county and to uphold community standards, preserve local control and to defend parental rights," board chair Fred Aguiar wrote.
But in a response to Aguiar's letter, Health Council CEO Margie Fites Seigle said, "There was not sufficient information there" to grant the ban. The council asked the county to provide further evidence, although in a letter sent later yesterday to Seigle, Aguiar said the county has "provided sufficient information to support a decision" and "respectfully requested" a final decision "at your earliest convenience." In the interim, county clinics will have to continue distributing the pill. If the Health Council formally rejects the county's request, "which now appears likely," the issue is expected to reach HHS and could serve as "an important test" for the Bush administration, which "strongly supports local government control" and has already blocked funding for overseas family planning groups that perform abortions. President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino counties Jon Dunn said, "I'm very concerned that once this gets to that level, it will be granted. This would give our president his first opportunity to allow [local governments] to limit the scope of family planning services. I think he has demonstrated his willingness to do that, and I think it would set a very dangerous precedent" (Gold, Los Angeles Times, 5/4).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.