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Legal challenge delays parent consent initiative

A legal challenge has delayed collection of signatures for a ballot initiative that would require Jackson County health officials to get parents' consent before providing birth control and other services to minors.

Three local residents ' Jolie Johnson, John Statler and Carole Souza ' filed a petition with Jackson County Clerk Kathy Beckett on Aug. 15, seeking review of a ballot title they claim is too broad and misleading.

It needs to be stated in a way that frames the debate, that doesn't hide the debate, said Statler, a Medford advocate for homeless people. It's hiding the real intent: To shut down public health departments.

But local organizers of the Constitution Party of Oregon, which proposed the plan, said the challenge is simply a legal maneuver backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

It's typical ACLU, that's what I would say, said Carol Malcolm of Talent, one of three local petitioners for the Family Integrity Initiative. They just hype things up to no end. I think it will be just fine.

A Jackson County Circuit Court judge will review the ballot title, written by District Attorney Mark Huddleston, to decide whether it should be changed. Until the issue is resolved, local members of the Constitution Party can't begin collecting 3,415 signatures needed to qualify the initiative to appear on a ballot, probably in March 2003.

Supported by the ACLU Foundation of Oregon, which sought local petitioners, the legal challenge is aimed at a proposal launched in seven Oregon counties that would require parental consent for all non-emergency public health services to minors.

The title proposed by Huddleston includes the caption Prohibits non-emergency county services for minors unless parent consents. It asks the question, Shall Jackson County be required to obtain consent of a parent before providing non-emergency services to a minor?

Petitioners contend that the caption should be amended to note that the initiative would affect all non-emergency services. It recasts the ballot question to read: Shall county be prohibited from providing any 'non-emergency' services to minors unless county receives parental consent?

The argument is that it doesn't accurately reflect what the current law is and how (the initiative) would change the law in the county, said Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon.

State law now ensures children under 18 access to birth control, family planning services and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases without parental consent.

Critics of the plan claim the initiative would have a chilling effect on young people's willingness to seek birth control and disease treatment services.

Moreover, they contend that the initiative would have a far-ranging impact on all county services to youth, possibly endangering federal contracts that require access to services but not parents' consent.

Officials said it would require creation of a new record-keeping system to track parental consent forms.

From libraries to parks and recreation services, it would affect every county service, Meyer said.

Backers of the initiative said it's aimed at maintaining parents' authority and their ability to make decisions in their children's lives.

The intent is not to deny any child any county service, said Bob Ekstrom, state chairman of the Constitution Party. The intent is to involve parents.

Ekstrom said parents should be contacted if their children are issued library cards or allowed to participate in county recreational activities, let alone if they receive family planning services.

It's one of the problems of society today: Youth being footloose, he said. The norm has always been that we go through the parent.

Representatives from both sides said they welcome the public debate about families that the proposal will generate.

The Family Integrity Initiative is being considered in six other Oregon counties: Clackamas, Washington, Columbia, Marion, Polk and Yamhill.

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail