Condoms and punch bowls

John P. Hale

December 26, 1990|By John P. Hale

The following is adapted from a letter to Joseph A. Fernandez, chancellor of New York City public schools. The author, a lawyer and former member of the New York State Board of Social Welfare who frequently does legal work for the New York Archdiocese, questions the chancellor's proposal to distribute condoms in the high schools and junior high schools. The Board of Education, which debated the proposal on Dec. 6, has yet to vote on the plan.

DEAR Dr. Fernandez:

Your records show that during the 1988-1989 school year you had 184,989 students in the junior high schools and 261,097 in the senior high schools, for a total of 446,086. You indicated that your proposal was to distribute condoms to the sexually active students at both the junior and senior high school levels. Based on your finding that 80 percent of the students are sexually active, you would have a target population of 356,868 children who will, based on your proposal, receive condoms.

How will the condoms be distributed? I assume that it will not be on an exchange basis such as was proposed in the needle program that was previously promoted as a means of preventing AIDS.

One alternative would be the punch bowl approach, in which large bowls of condoms might be set out in each classroom so that the children could dip in and take what they want. This would not appear to be a satisfactory method since it would permit the children to decide whether to take or reject the offer.

We know that we're dealing with a population that is in the adolescent stage and whose judgment has not yet been fully developed.

The second method would be to actually deliver condoms to the sexually active children after you screen out the 20 percent who are not sexually active.

If you deliver one condom a week to those who are sexually active, you would have to anticipate distributing 356,868 condoms a week. I assume you have made a study as to whether one condom a week will be an adequate supply for the children. To be on the safe side, you might choose to distribute two condoms a week per sexually active child. Thus, you would distribute 713,736 condoms per week. There are certain educational, environmental and financial implications to this program. Have these implications been studied?

For example, since New York City children are as playful as any other children, we can assume that 20 percent of the condoms would be inflated and released in the classrooms or in the public corridors in the school. Half of those released would be punctured, causing a loud noise to the delight of the children and to the annoyance of the teachers. Have you made a study of the effect on class discipline of 142,747 inflated condoms in your junior and high school classrooms and corridors and 71,374 inflated condoms being playfully popped in your schools each week?

At the beginning of each 10-week summer vacation you would have to distribute to the children 3,568,680 condoms to carry them through until school reopened in the fall (assuming only one condom per week). Of course, if gave each sexually active child two condoms a week, you would be obliged to distribute 7,137,360 at the start of the summer.

I assume you have studied the economic implications of your proposal. Our children are entrepreneurial. I would anticipate that with the free source of condoms, they would recognize the potential for going into business to sell what they have received. Thus, I would expect that some of your children would be setting up sidewalk stands to sell the condoms at a rate below that offered by the local pharmacy. While the children would be earning additional pocket money, you may find that there is an adverse financial impact on the local pharmacy industry.

If you consider turning to Planned Parenthood as a source of supply, you should bear in mind that Planned Parenthood recently admitted that, although it is a nonprofit organization, it does mark up the price at which it sells contraceptives and that it makes a tidy profit on the sale of contraceptives. This would raise a conflict-of-interest question if Planned Parenthood is an advocate of the program.

Let me turn to another economic factor. The New York City school system is self-insured; not only is it frequently sued, but it pays out millions of dollars on claims each year.

When the school system distributes products such as condoms to the children, the system assumes responsibility for the safety of the products. The legal theory is referred to as "product liability," and I am sure your legal counsel has made a careful analysis of this question.

Former Mayor Ed Koch summed the matter up: "It is a misnomer, a fraud, to try to convey to people that if they use condoms, they are absolutely safe from contracting AIDS. Just as it is a fraud to say that if you use condoms, there's no danger of pregnancy."

Thus, you can be reasonably sure that the shower of condoms that you propose will be followed by a shower of lawsuits claiming that the products you distributed were defective and that children have relied on these products and found themselves pregnant, or infected with AIDS, or both.

I think you would agree that each dollar paid out in claims would be a dollar that would not be available for general education. What would the rate of failure be among your target population of 356,868 sexually active students? The literature would indicate the failure rate of condoms ranges from 5 percent to 17 percent.

I believe all of the above factors must be considered by the parents and general public. I therefore make this demand under the Freedom of Information Act that you make available to me all of the studies that the New York City school system has done in each of these areas.

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