The Condom Access Project (CAP) launched by California officials in several counties last week provides free condoms through the mail to students as young as 12, and the taxpayer-funded initiative has some wondering if the program might actually encourage teens to have sex.
CAP, supported by the STD Control Branch of the California Department of Public Health and the nonprofit California Family Health Council, aims to cut the high rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and infections among the state's teens. The free, mail-order condom program for teens living in Alameda, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Kern County, and certain areas in San Francisco, was launched the week of Feb. 14.
Teens 12-19 can log onto TeenSource.com, fill out a short form requesting their city, zip code and date of birth and then select to have a free package of 10 condoms, lubricant and education literature mailed in a plain yellow envelope to their home. Condoms can be requested every 30 days.
Although supporters of the program admit abstinence is the only sure way of preventing unplanned pregnancies and avoiding STDs among teens, they insist that implementing the free condom mail-order program does have some chance of helping to decrease California's staggering teen pregnancy and STD rates.
For example, Kern County was targeted specifically because of the high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among its teens, according to The Bakersfield Californian.
The publication reports, citing data provided by local health officials, that between 2008 and 2010, Kern's "incidence rate (for teen births) has vacillated between the worst and second worst statewide in recent years."
According to the Family Health Council, such high numbers often reflect inadequate sex education.
"Usually when we see high numbers, there's a lack of access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive services," Amy Moy, vice president of public affairs for the Family Health Council, told the paper. "There may also be a culture in the community where things like comprehensive sex education and related issues aren't discussed and resources aren't available."
Moy added, "We can't keep our heads in the sand and pretend there isn't a problem. We know teens are engaging and we want to make sure they're as safe as possible."
As for how parents in Kern County might react, Linda Davis, executive director of the Bakersfield Pregnancy Center, did not think the mail-order condom program would go over well.
"I would think the overwhelming majority of parents in Kern County wouldn't think this is a good idea, and I don't think their kids would have the nerve to request them," said Davis, whose organization promotes abstinence.
Despite the Condom Access Project's aim, there remain some California residents who fear teens will only be encouraged to have sex.
"It's a horrible idea," one man told CBS Sacramento. "They'll do it all the time."
California, one of several states that refuse federal funding for abstinence-only programs, saw a decline in overall teen pregnancy based on 2005 data, according to a 2010 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice agency. More than 10 years prior, the state held the highest teen pregnancy rate in the U.S.
Researchers admit that teaching abstinence plays a part in preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections among teens, but assert there is no evidence that abstinence-only programs work to prevent youth from HIV/AIDS, STIs or unplanned pregnancies. They insist a comprehensive approach is needed.
"It'd be best if teens didn't have sex, but if they're going to do it anyway, they need to protect themselves," Denise Smith, a local health official, said. "As a public health department, we have an obligation to provide education and tools."
The U.S. has the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies of any industrialized country in the world, according to a report from the University of California's AIDS Research Institute.
"Each year, 3.75 million teenagers will contract an STI, and one in three sexually active individuals will contract an STI by age 24. There are approximately one million teen pregnancies and about half a million teen births each year," the institute revealed.