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Chicago Tribune

DC Handing out Free Condoms; City Tried to Lower Soaring AIDS Rate


Michel Daley stole the dance floor at his bar last month for an announcement. “I’m in the business of boy-meets-girl,” he said. “I know unprotected sex happens. I also know it can literally kill you.”

Daley then urged those in the crowd to take advantage of the free condoms being distributed by the District of Columbia city government, as his audience nodded under the reflected glow of a disco ball at his bar, Zanzibar on the Waterfront.

“The man’s right,” said one woman, holding a Cosmopolitan in one hand and a female contraceptive in the other.

In an effort to curb the nation’s highest incidence of AIDS, the D.C. Department of Health has begun installing free condom dispensers in bars, including Daley’s, and in government buildings across the city. It’s believed to be the first program of its kind in the nation.

“They’re going to be as common as water fountains,” said Ivan Torres, interim director of the city government’s HIV/AIDS Administration, when he introduced the program Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

In 2004, city officials hope to hand out about 550,000 male condoms, 30,000 female condoms and 45,000 dental dams (used during oral sex) to places such as the D.C. Housing Authority and the Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as to beauty salons, bars and barber shops.

And 50,000 free condoms already have been distributed in Washington’s public schools.

The program is taking root as the Bush administration has emphasized abstinence in fighting AIDS.

Bush’s $15 billion AIDS program sets aside substantial funds to encourage abstinence outside marriage, and a welfare overhaul supported by Bush also includes millions for that purpose. The administration’s emphasis on abstinence has caused concern among some health experts, who fear other approaches are being sidelined.

Still, the administration is not actively opposing Washington’s condom program.

“Abstinence is the best method for all,” said Carlie Stanton, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, she added, “This is a good program for the city to reach their risk group.”

Some conservative groups contend Washington’s government is working as a sexual enabler.

“If they’re so worried about our health, why don’t they hand out vitamins?” asked an exasperated Kristi Hamrick, of the conservative group American Values. At the very least, Hamrick said, condoms should carry a warning label listing diseases they do not prevent.

“It would be fine if people chose [abstinence],” said Harold Whitfield, Washington’s HIV/AIDS public health adviser. “But if they don’t–and many don’t–this is an option.”

Some of the conflict over abstinence is reflected in a pro-condom ad in the city, sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice.

Pictured are two young adults making out. “Abstinence has a high failure rate,” the sign reads.

This article first appeared in the 31 December 2003 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Catholics for Choice