Black legislators warned the governor yesterday that they may oppose his plan to offer the contraceptive Norplant to welfare mothers and vasectomies to men leaving prison because such measures appear to target low income African-Americans.
"We've informed the governor that we could not embrace his ideas," said Del. John D. Jefferies, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.
Other members of the caucus, however, said that while they have serious questions about the governor's plan, they have not yet rejected it out of hand. An aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the administration is willing to work with black lawmakers, or others, to resolve any concerns.
The caucus' health committee released a statement yesterday expressing specific concern that the governor's program may not adequately inform participants of the potential side effects of Norplant -- which is inserted under a woman's skin and lasts five years -- or impress upon them that neither Norplant nor vasectomies can protect against sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
The birth control plan, part of Governor Schaefer's broader proposals to address the growing welfare, medical assistance and prison populations, is designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Specifically, Mr. Schaefer wants health professionals in local welfare offices to encourage the use of Norplant and other contraceptives. He wants corrections officials to offer vasectomies to inmates leaving prison. And he would use state funds to pay for various methods of birth control, including Norplant and vasectomies, for people without health insurance.
Del. Salima S. Marriott, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the caucus' health committee, said blacks are worried the program could become coercive.
"Even with well informed consent, the issue of choice becomes fuzzy when vasectomy is offered at the point of one's release from prison, often contingent upon a recommendation for parole, and Norplant is offered at the point of determining eligibility for basic subsistence needs," the committee's statement says.
Daryl C. Plevy, an executive aide to Governor Schaefer, said coercion is not the intent.
Even though Mr. Schaefer suggested in his State of the State address that the idea of requiring certain welfare mothers to use contraceptives should be considered by a study commission, Ms. Plevy emphasized that the program Mr. Schaefer is proposing now would be totally voluntary.
She said she has already told Delegate Marriott that she and other administration officials are willing to meet with her to discuss the Black Caucus' concerns.
"Clearly, we are not anticipating a coercive situation," she said. "But those are legitimate concerns, and it is important when we set this [program] up that we make it very clear to people, 'You don't have to do this,' " she said.
In Baltimore, a similar plan to promote the use of Norplant among high school girls also has caused controversy.
Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said he was not surprised the governor's pregnancy prevention program was causing a stir.
"The overall cost savings could be substantial if you really could stop illegitimate births," he said. "But when you get involved in the issue of trying to control populations in the black community, it becomes very controversial."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said concerns about the program will aired when it comes up for a legislative hearing.
"In the give-and-take before the committee, we'll have a clearer understanding of what the program intent is, how it will be organized, who is eligible to participate, whether there is parental notification," Mr. Rawlings said.
He said he has an open mind: "Poor people ought to have the same access to birth control methods as anybody else. But I share the same concerns that members of the Black Caucus have."