It's a city law, but out of sync with aiding teens

MICHAEL OLESKER

October 25, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

At City Hall this week, those responsible for the enlightened laws of this community are looking at Baltimore's teen-age birth rate and its venereal disease rate, and they are declaring bravely and without fear of contradiction:

"Oops."

Everywhere you look, sexually active teen-agers are being encouraged to use birth control. There are condom posters in schools and on buses, and there are hospitals and health clinics urging the purchase of contraceptives. Seven middle schools and high schools are giving out condoms to teens. Drugstores that once hid contraceptives behind counters now display them prominently and sell them randomly.

And no one at City Hall seems to realize that much of this activity encourages people to break the law.

Item:

Baltimore City Code, Article 19, Section 79: "It is illegal for any person, firm, corporation or employee, agent or servant thereof to sell any contraceptive to any minor under the age of 16 years."

In other words, while we're encouraging sexually active youngsters to buy condoms, anyone doing the actual selling of those condoms is committing a crime.

"They are?" said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "I didn't know that."

"They are?" echoed nine other council members when they heard the news, which they missed because the law's only been on the books for the last 40 years.

Well, yes. Anybody found guilty of such a sale shall be fined "not less than $10 nor more than $100 for each offense."

Naturally, there is an explanation.

"Let's face it," says Councilman Nick D'Adamo, "our law books are so thick."

"There's a lot of language in the code that's outdated," adds Councilman Tim Murphy. "It's that way in every city. There's a town in Pennsylvania where the city code says it's illegal to throw a muskrat at a clergyman. I mean, the law is dynamic. It's always changing. We need to consider changing this one."

Notice his language: "consider changing."

In the midst of epidemic teen pregnancy and venereal disease, not everyone at City Hall likes the idea of government having a hand in promoting birth control, and not everyone thinks the old law should be changed.

"I think it's important to save young people's bodies," Council President Clarke says, "but save their souls, too."

"In other words," she is asked, "the city shouldn't promote the use of condoms?"

"See, young people are funny," says Clarke. "When I was a young teen-ager, what my parents said about smoking was, 'If you're gonna smoke, smoke at home, not in public.' So that's what I did. You see the comparison?"

Uh, teen-agers should have sex at home, and not in public?

"Don't say that," Clarke says. "I'm talking about sending the wrong messages. But, yeah, have it at home after you're married."

Unfortunately, the world does not always work so neatly these days. And the city finds itself in something of a legal-ethical conflict, encouraging birth control at the same time it outlaws the sale of contraceptives to minors.

Among City Council members, this provoked varying reaction yesterday.

"You're kidding," said Councilman Bill Cunningham. "The law's archaic. It's gonna have to be changed."

"Unbelievable," said Councilman Jody Landers. "And here we are giving them out in schools. In other words, it's OK to give 'em to teen-agers, but not to sell 'em."

"Teen-agers having sex?" said Councilman Mimi DiPietro. "I'll be durned. When I was their age, we didn't do that, we went out and got a job."

At present, officials are examining much of the City Code to determine which pieces of the law are outdated or unenforceable. It's a laborious process, and apparently nobody has yet turned to Article 19, Section 79.

"We've gotta change it," says Councilman Lawrence Bell. "We should have done it a long time ago. I still believe we should encourage abstinence, but the reality is that a lot of kids are sexually active and they need to be protected.

"There are schools in my district where 60 percent of the kids come from households where there's never been a father there. And I know some of the ministers are upset about government promoting birth control, but this problem has just mushroomed to such an extent."

Here we get to the nub of the matter, the conflict of what some see as practicality and others see as immorality.

"The way I was raised," says Councilman D'Adamo, "birth control information came from the parents. I don't think teachers should be giving out information on condoms, but we know we've got all these sexually active kids.

"I don't know, maybe we should send a 14-year-old kid into drugstores and see if he has any trouble buying condoms. I don't think they ask for I.D. Kids start young today. What, 12 years old? It's not like my day."

Councilman D'Adamo is 32.

The city's teen-age pregnancy rate is among the highest in the nation. The rate of venereal disease is alarming. Encouraging the sexually active young to protect themselves makes sense.

It would be nice to have the law of Baltimore reflect that simple notion.

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