By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hundreds of New York City high schools students have received morning-after pills since the launch of a program that provides emergency contraception through public school nurses, the city's health department said on Monday.
Many schools around the nation have long made condoms available to students but New York health officials said they believe the city is the first to make hormonal contraceptives available.
The program, which started last year and now has been instituted at 13 high schools, allows school nurses to give students emergency contraceptive pills, designed to prevent pregnancy following unprotected sex or a contraceptive failure if taken within 72 hours. It also provides condoms, birth-control pills and pregnancy testing.
The program is designed to battle the problem of unplanned pregnancies among teens, health officials said.
"In New York City over 7,000 young women become pregnant by age 17, 90 percent of which are unplanned," Alexandra Waldhorn, a health department spokeswoman, said in an email.
"We are committed to trying new approaches, like this pilot program in place since January 2011, to improve a situation that can have lifelong consequences," she said.
Parents were informed of the program from the start and given the choice of opting out of any or all of the services but have largely supported the program, Waldhorn said, but it had not been reported on until the New York Post wrote about it during the weekend.
Between 1 percent and 2 percent of parents sent back an opt-out form, she said.
Joan Malin, president of Planned Parenthood of New York City, said that while "in an ideal world a teen would consult with a parent or caregivers before becoming sexually active and seeking out birth control," that was not always the case.
This program "equips school nurses and other qualified staff to be those responsible adults providing appropriate advice and medical care."
Others, however, expressed concern that parents were not making informed decisions about the program.
Greg Pfundstein, the executive director of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, an anti-abortion group in New York, said the program should be conducted on an opt-in basis so that parents had to actively give their consent.
He also said the health department had not done enough to show that the program would achieve its intended effect of reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies.
New York State Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Democrat who represents parts of the South Bronx, called on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to immediately kill the program.
"It is unconscionable for New York City's government to implement any program that gives medication to students without the prior authorization of parents," he said in a letter to the mayor.
The program - known as CATCH for Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Healthcare - is an extension of services that already were available to about a quarter of all New York public school students through privately run health clinics.
The 13 public schools were chosen because such facilities were not available nearby.
In the past school year, 567 students received emergency contraception and 580 students received Reclipsen, a birth-control pill, through the program.
Some anti-abortion advocates object to the morning-after drugs, which work by preventing the release of an egg, preventing fertilization or stopping a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.
The National Association of School Nurses, contacted by the Post, said it did not know of any similar program in the nation. (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Trott)