Contraceptives in City Schools

December 30, 1991

The disposition of the condom issue in Baltimore is an example of good sense prevailing over hysteria and wrong-headed perceptions. When it became widely known that Baltimore's health department was dispensing birth control pills and condoms at some city schools, some parents and clerics were upset. They felt the schools were not only out of bounds, but sending a dangerous message that teen sex is permissible.

Now, little more than a year after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke quietly made the decision to dispense birth control devices in eight clinics in city schools, there are promising signs the decision was correct. It's too early to draw a substantive link between the program and the 10 percent, two-year decline in teen-age births -- a major coup in a city that has led the nation in that category. But health officials believe in-school distribution of contraceptives may have been a contributing factor.

Currently, about 600 female students, some of whom already have children, are relying on the clinics for birth control devices. Close to 1,000 condoms are dispensed each month. These figures do not represent an explosion in sexual activity. To the contrary, Patricia Papa, supervisor of the city's school health services, says the clinics serve only about 60 percent of the students at any given school. Of those, most come in for routine health problems; family planning is third on the list -- behind acne and headaches.

These clinics represent a multi-pronged approach to combating teen pregnancy that health officials say is reaching more and more youngsters. "There was an issue of credibility and legitimacy," said Dr. Nira Bonner, Baltimore's assistant commissioner of health for child, adolescent and family services. "Students were being asked to listen to our messages about disease and pregnancy, while at the same time they could see that we were not dispensing contraceptives."

Most parents would rather their children abstain from sexual activity. But the grim reality is that many teen-agers do not. A sizable number of parents surveyed for the Baltimore program recognized this; 70 percent approved of the distribution of birth control devices to school-age students. The early success of this program demonstrates that access to and information about birth control options is a sensible way to respond to teen-age sexual activity.

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