In the old days, that little round bulge in your son's wallet came from an older brother, a more-experienced friend, or a gas-station vending machine. In the future, if a new program in New York City's public high schools catches on, the condom might come from his teacher.
Some parents have a problem with this. They say it's not a teacher's business to dispense birth-control devices without their permission. Anticipating a lawsuit, supporters of the condom plan are already formulating their defense, which is likely to depict condom distribution in public schools as a life-or-death issue in the age of AIDS.
This is a red herring. As Michael Fumento demonstrates in The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, the chance of contracting the disease from a heterosexual encounter that does not involve anal intercourse is so small—on the order of 1 in 5 million—that it does not bolster the case for condoms in school. Preventing pregnancy is a much more compelling reason for distributing condoms. About 1 million teenagers become pregnant each year, and half of them give birth; some 80 percent of these births result from unplanned pregnancies.
Parents who object to the condom program should recognize that the issue is not whether teenagers should have access to condoms without Mom and Dad's permission. They already do. For the price of $2.29 and (maybe) a little embarrassment, they can get a package of Trojans at the local drugstore. True, free distribution at school makes things a bit easier. But it's not as if the schools were giving out something that is generally proscribed for minors—say, liquor or pornographic magazines.
From a concerned parent's perspective, the real problem is the implicit moral message that a kid receives when a figure of authority hands him or her a condom. No matter how many caveats are attached to it, that condom communicates an attitude that teenage sex is OK, an attitude that may occasionally be decisive. In any case, it contradicts what many parents teach their children.
State laws and district policies often make allowances for such conflicts between home and school. Indeed, in New York state, students are excused from otherwise mandatory sex- and AIDS-education classes if their parents object on religious grounds. But such concessions can only go so far. It's hard to see how a similar arrangement could be managed with a condom-distribution program.
Opponents might therefore argue that the only way to maintain parental prerogatives is to cancel the condom program. If parents want their kids to have condoms, they can provide them. But this approach is not satisfactory either. Many parents who hesitate to encourage sexual activity by communicating their own approval—or who are simply too embarrassed to discuss birth control with the kids—might still like condoms to be readily available in case their children decide to have sex.
So what's the solution? There is none. The public-school system simply cannot accommodate a diversity of parental concerns. Only a free, competitive market in education can do that. Karen Norlander, an attorney with New York's Education Department, seems to sense this. She told The New York Times, "The entire future of public education would be hard pressed if we came to a point where a parent could dictate what the child can learn and what the child can't learn." Just so.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Prophylactic Measure".