Vermont will become the first state in the nation to make free condoms available in public middle and high schools next year after Gov. Scott signed a bill last week that expands access to contraceptives across the state.
Some of the country's largest school districts have free condoms available, but no other state requires its secondary schools to have them according to the National Coalition of STD Directors.
Barre Republican Representative Topper McFaun introduced the bill, and says if teenagers have more access to contraceptives and health education; it might lead to a reduction in the number of abortions that are performed.
Vermont's abortion rate for teens ages 15-19 is about seven per 1,000, slightly lower than the national average.
“I’m talking about allowing people to be in the position where they don’t have to make the decision, that crucial decision, to have an abortion or not — that’s what I’m trying to prevent,” McFaun said. “And the way to do that is to provide ways to allow people to protect themselves.”
The new law also strengthens the state’s ability to force insurance companies to cover contraceptive services. In addition, McFaun says there’s a section that sets new guidelines for a more comprehensive sex and health education program in the schools.
“We know that people are having sex at early ages. We know that,” he said. “You know, there is a consequence. It doesn’t happen every time, but you may become pregnant, or you may get some kind of venereal disease. So why not protect everybody concerned. And make those ways of protection easily accessible. And that was what the bill was all about.”
The Agency of Education and the Department of Health supported the bill when it was debated in the Legislature earlier this year. The new law goes into effect July 1, and the Agency of Education says it will work with schools to make sure they are ready to meet the mandate before the deadline.
At the start of the next school year every public middle and high school will have to make free condoms available in locations that are “safe and readily accessible to students." School district administrators and nursing staff will decide the best way to make the condoms available.
“I think perhaps Representative McFaun has good intentions,” Toborg said. “But the reality is that when you encourage sexual activity among young kids, and treat it as normal and acceptable for 12-year-olds to be engaging in sexual activity, you are creating an atmosphere that will lead to more sexual activity and more unintended pregnancies.”
Toborg said the new law would prevent schools from allowing parents to opt out when children as young as 12 or 13 seek out condoms.
Across the country, condom availability policies vary mostly by school district, according David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, a Washington D.C. advocacy group.
And he says that while most schools in the country do not offer free condoms, research shows that the programs do not increase sexual activity, and they lead to lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers.
The most recent CDC study found that only 7.2% of high schools, and about 2% of middle schools, made condoms available to students.
“Vermont is on the leading edge of making these programs available for high school students,” Harvey said. “And this policy is going to result in lower STI rates and lower rates of unintended pregnancies.”
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Vice President of Public Policy Lucy Leriche says the new state law is also important at a time when reproductive rights are threatened on a federal level.
“With abortion in the spotlight at the U.S. Supreme Court, there was a real desire to make sure that, yes, we should be protecting abortion rights” Leriche said. “But we should also make sure that the full spectrum of reproductive care is supported in state policy.”
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