Bill To Increase Free Condoms At Schools and HPV Vaccines Faces Increased Scrutiny

SB 541 aims to reduce sexually transmitted infections amongst teens, young adults

A bill to add contraceptive and immunization measures, and HPV immunization coverage to Medical, as well as having free condoms at schools, faces increased scrutiny a week before it is heard in the Senate Education Committee.

The bill, Senate Bill 541, authored by Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-Panorama City), would require each public school, including schools operated by a school district or county office of education and charter schools, to make internal and external condoms available  to all students free of charge beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. Schools would need to alert students of them being available, as well as give information on how to use them properly and have school clinics not be prohibited from giving them away.

In addition, SB 541, also known as the Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act, would prohibit retail establishments from refusing to furnish nonprescription contraception to people solely on the basis of age by means of any conduct, including requiring the customer to present identification for purposes of demonstrating their age.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) immunization coverage would also be added to the Family Planning, Access, Care, and Treatment (Family PACT) Program under Medi-Cal. It would also open up the immunizations for those under 18.

Senator Menjivar wrote the bill in order to prevent and reduce unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, as well as to help reduce the sexually transmitted infection (STI) epidemic currently occurring for those under 18 years of age. According to Menjivar, statewide data indicates over half of all STIs are experienced among California youth ages 15 – 24 years old. Young people in this age group also make up more than 5 out of every 10 chlamydia cases in California, and more than 87% are youth of color. While previous bills on the matter have been passed in the last several years, SB 541 would take a more narrowed focus on youth programs.

“By requiring free condoms in all California high schools, we are empowering the youth who decide to become sexually active to protect themselves and their partners from STIs, while also removing barriers that potentially shame them and lead to unsafe sex,” said Senator Menjivar in a statement last month. “Further, requiring the Family PACT program to cover HPV vaccinations for ages 12-18 will decrease instances of patients delaying vaccination or becoming discouraged after being turned away. These programs can instill safe sexual habits among youth, protecting themselves now and into adulthood.”

“What we’re asking the schools to do is to provide condoms in two different locations throughout their campus, and not where a student will have to go to a teacher, an administrator to ask for them. I’m trying to remove the shame of asking for contraceptives, as the pressure of the situation often drives students to forgo condoms entirely. We want to make sure they have all the facts and all the resources available at their fingertips to make a safe decision.”

Criticism against SB 541

While Menjivar received some support for the bill in the past month since being introduced, opponents have pointed out that programs such as free condom programs have largely not worked in preventing STIs in the past and that other programs need to be considered instead to reduce SDI rates.

“California public schools have been pushing condoms as part of ‘comprehensive sex education’ for more than a decade in the name of improving student health,” said the California Family Council. “But it’s been a complete failure if you look at the rates of sexually transmitted infections.”

With the Senate Education Committee set to meet on the bill soon, a growing concern of if the STI rate will go down because of these measures has led many to call for a delay of the bill until more experts can weigh in on what can be done.

“People keep trying to push condoms and the availability of condoms as a solution, but the state has kept expanding condom availability for years, for these rates to only go up,” explained sexual education consultant Anna Cole to the Globe on Monday. “They should definitely be available, but we need to think outside the box here. And what does this bill do? Greater availability of HPV vaccinations? Allowing stores to sell contraceptives to teenagers? That won’t cut it.”

“You need to go down to the root of the problem. Show them that HPV rates have gone up, as have STDs. Don’t scare them, but explain to them like adults that this is a problem now and what they can do to combat it. You can put it to them financially, such as what it will cost to treat those issues compared to the cost of prevention. You can give them the symptoms and how bad they really are. There’s a lot of ways to go on this.”

SB 541 is expected to be heard in Senate Education Committee soon.

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