A school in Maine, US, is to make birth control pills available to middle school children as young as 11 through its health centre. According to an Associated Press (AP) report, the decision was made in a school committee meeting earlier this week following a request from the school's health centre to make the pills available to children of high school age who were still attending middle school.

Officials from King Middle School in Portland, Maine, defended the decision saying it was aimed at a handful of sexually active students.

The decision means King will be the first middle school in Maine to offer a full range of contraception to students aged from 11 to 15 (grades 6 to 8), said the Portland Press Herald.

Amanda Rowe, school nurse coordinator of the Portland Public Schools, told ABC news there was nowhere else for students to get protection:

"I see students every day whose lives could be ruined by an unwanted pregnancy who are having sexual intercourse and who need protection."

Principal of King Middle School, Mike McCarthy added that there were some occasions when they had to:

"Protect kids from risky behavior, that in some cases they are not talking to their parents about."

According to the AP, only 5 of the 134 children to visit the school's health centre last year reported being sexually active.

Seven pregnancies have been reported among schoolgirls attending Portland's three middle schools in the last four years, a health official told the AP, correcting earlier reports that said this figure was 17.

King School children will need permission from a parent to attend the health centre. However, under state law, the health centre is required to keep the treatment confidential, which means parents will not know whether their children are getting contraceptive pills.

The decision to make the pills available to the children was carried by a 7-2 vote by the school committee, with opposing voices raising concerns about violation to parents' rights.

One parent that spoke to ABC news said that she would rather see a kid being able to get birth control than get pregnant.

And a 12 year child attending the school said she was aware she now had the right to ask for birth control, but she wasn't about to.

A committee member and parent of an 8th grade student at the school told the Portland Herald she supported the decision even though she was not comfortable about it. She said there may be some kids without strong parental support at home with nobody to turn to. And even though she felt she had done her job as a parent, there may be times when her daughter might not feel comfortable coming to her mother.

The decision extends the range of contraception options available to the children who are already able to get condoms at the health centre but not birth control pills.

It will not be easy for a child to just walk in and get hold of birth control pills, one school committee member told the press. There would be extensive counselling, and children who had not reached puberty would not qualify.

Another committee member disagreed, saying that some kids would know how to "navigate" the system.

Principal McCarthy told ABC news that he had had few complaints about the decision from Portland residents. Fewer than 30 people showed for the committee meeting that made the decision. This compares with a turn out three times that number for budget meetings. McCarthy said he had received far more complaints by email from people outside Portland.

McCarthy said he was sympathetic to people worried about the decision, but implied it had to be considered in context. There was one pregnancy at the school last year, and several students reporting being sexually active. While the health centre could give out condoms, it could not dispense birth control pills and referred students to a planned parenthood centre outside the school. But many of the kids weren't going to the outside centre said McCarthy.

The decision highlights the careful path that health professionals caring for children's needs have to tread. On the one hand there is a duty to give sexually active children advice, education and health care in a confidential setting, and on the other hand is a legal obligation to report any cases of abuse against minors.

According to the Maine Youth Risk Behaviour Survey, 23 per cent of school students in Maine reported having sexual intercourse in 1997. The latest figure, for 2005, is 13 per cent.

Click here for AP report "Maine School to Offer Contraceptives".

Click here for ABC News report "Kids on Birth Control".

Click here for the Portland Press Herald story "Middle school adds birth control options".

Written by: Catharine Paddock