I'm all for telling kids to steadfastly abstain from sex until
they're married and urging adults to embrace monogamous
That's why, in theory at least, I had no problems whatsoever with
Dallas County's bullheaded ban on free condom handouts in
Handing out condoms can readily be perceived as tacit,
throw-your-hands-up consent to promiscuous and irresponsible
conduct, the sort of sordid sexual behavior that leads to
unplanned pregnancies, diseases and ubiquitous moral decay.
Some commissioners certainly felt that way in 1995 when a narrow
majority voted to put a quick end to county health workers doling
out condoms and needle sterilization kits to those at greatest
risk of HIV infections.
It was a well-intentioned - if well-worn - moral stance, a nod to
religious conservatives who dutifully argue that the only
surefire way to combat sexually transmitted diseases is to preach
abstinence and practice celibacy.
Problem is, the condom clampdown hasn't worked here. And Dallas
County has suffered the consequences of its highly principled,
yet impractical, policy.
Consider this: Dallas County had the state's highest HIV rate in
2006 and 2007. More than 13,500 folks are living with HIV/AIDS in
Dallas, a 35 percent increase in the last five years, according
to a report by the county's Health and Human Services Department.
The black community is really feeling the brunt of careless
lifestyle choices: Black residents make up just 20 percent of the
county's population, but they represented a whopping 46 percent
of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in 2007.
Worse still, the infection rate among 13- to 24-year-olds nearly
tripled over the last five years. That's a group we can least
afford to have succumbing to a virulent disease, particularly
when you consider the mounting costs of HIV care. We're talking
hundreds of millions of dollars a year, most of which is coming
out of the federal till.
So, it's clear that we can no longer rest on the noble notion
that faithful and consistent proselytizing alone will lead Dallas
- or the nation, for that matter - out of this darkness. We need
more practical tools.
Make no mistake, my conservative religious cohorts are right on
the mark when they argue that our fundamental challenge still is
in overhauling the value systems of those who willingly or
unwittingly put themselves in harm's way by sleeping around or
But changing deep-rooted behaviors - an ongoing, epic battle
whose end is nowhere in sight - is only part of the solution to
this health crisis.
It's also vitally incumbent upon public-health officials to do
everything they can to control and curb a disease that poses a
very tangible threat.
Dallas County officials took an important step in that direction
yesterday by lifting the free condom ban.
It was disconcerting to see county commissioners Kenneth Mayfield
and Mike Cantrell vote "no" after Mayfield failed to win a
substitute motion that would have precluded health officials from
issuing condoms in schools - an issue that certainly bears
Tarrant County has a free condom program, too. And health
officials there don't distribute condoms at schools where they go
in to talk about sex, said Mark Wilson, the adult health services
program manager in Tarrant County's Public Health Department.
But overall, Dallas commissioners did the right thing. And health
officials indicated they'll work closely with school districts to
allay any concerns.
Wilson, who has worked in seven states and three foreign
countries, said it's simply smart, practical public policy to
offer free condoms in high-risk areas to stem the rise of HIV
"It's just one tool used to change behavior and help people
reduce their risks," he said. "This problem hasn't gone away. It
still exists and it's growing."