Friday, January 16, 2009
Dallas County Commissioners overturn condom ban
Jim Foster, John Wiley Price, and Maurine Dickey voted to lift the 14-year-old ban.
In June 1995, three Republican Dallas County commissioners drafted a letter to 43 area doctors urging them to support the county’s recently enacted ban on the distribution of free condoms in high-risk neighborhoods by public health workers to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“We don’t want anyone, especially anyone in authority, telling our children or future grandchildren that it’s an approved or acceptable lifestyle to be a homosexual, a prostitute or a drug user,” the letter stated. “And, we don’t intend to be the vehicle through which others are given this message.”
Fourteen years later, Mayfield and Cantrell remain on the Commissioners Court, and their position on the condom ban hasn’t changed.
But this time, they found themselves in the minority, as the five-member court voted 3-2 Tuesday, Jan. 13, to overturn the ban.
Foster, who’s openly gay, said Tuesday’s vote will allow the county health department to become proactive, rather than reactive, in combating HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
“It’s a big day in Dallas County,” Foster said after the vote. “We should have never been in this position.”
The condom ban was enacted prior to the introduction of life-extending antiretroviral medications for people with HIV/AIDS, and one LGBT health advocate compared the policy at the time to “ethnic cleansing.”
But the Republican commissioners who enacted the ban said the health department’s practice of distributing condoms and needle sterilization kits, which began in the mid-1980s, encouraged illegal and immoral behavior. It would be eight years after the condom ban before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Texas anti-sodomy law.
Even in 1995, though, mainstream medical professionals strongly advocated the distribution of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. For example, the president of the Dallas County Medical Society and a group of infectious-disease physicians warned then that the ban would lead to “a public health and a financial disaster.”
This time, the county health department prepared an 23-page report recommending that the ban be overturned. The report noted that while the overall rate of new HIV infections has been relatively steady over the last several years, some alarming trends have emerged in certain groups.
For example, while African-Americans make up only 20 percent of Dallas County’s overall population, in 2007 they accounted for 46 percent of all new HIV cases.
Meanwhile, the rate of new HIV infections among people ages 13 to 24 has nearly tripled in the last five years, and they now represent the highest-risk age group.
Also, in each of the last two years, Dallas County has had the highest rate of new HIV infections in the state.
Mayfield and Cantrell, however, weren’t convinced.
Mayfield made an issue out of the health department’s condom program during his initial campaign in 1994, when he defeated a Democratic incumbent.
And after Price, the lone member of the court to oppose the ban in 1995, proposed revisiting it in December of last year, Mayfield responded with an alternative.
Mayfield’s proposal would’ve allowed public health workers to distribute condoms only to certain people, such as those already diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or STDs.
But Mayfield scrapped the alternative before Tuesday’s meeting, instead offering a last-minute amendment that would have prohibited the distribution of condoms in schools.
The amendment failed, after Dickey said she was more concerned about the fiscal impact of HIV/AIDS. According to the health department’s report, the average lifetime cost of treating someone with HIV/AIDS is more than $600,000.
“I think we need to put the taxpayers first,” Dickey said before the vote. “If we prevent two people from getting AIDS in Dallas County, we will have saved over $1 million of the taxpayers’ money.”
Zachary Thompson, director of the health department, told the court that decisions about distributing condoms in schools would be left up to individual districts.
Thompson also noted that Dallas was the only major metropolitan area in Texas to prohibit public health workers from distributing condoms, which are provided at no cost by the state.
About two-thirds of all new HIV infections in Dallas County are among men who have sex with men, and LGBT health advocates praised Tuesday’s decision.
“At least we have begun the journey to not being the laughing stock of the nation, which is probably good for our image,” said Don Maison, executive director of AIDS Services of Dallas.
“And the other thing that I think is really great, is that if you remember from the  election, what’s happened to Dallas County now, I think there’s a good chance that the Commissioners Court will be cleaned up considerably, including the two who voted no,” Maison said.
While Tuesday’s vote was a step in the right direction, Maison said it doesn’t’ undo the “incalculable damage” caused by the condom ban.
“I can look myself in the mirror. If I were Mayfield or Cantrell, I couldn’t,” Maison said. “It’s politics influenced by right wing Christians. It’s the religious right, and they think it’s OK if homosexuals become infected and die. I really believe that’s their mentality. … Think of the lives lost over these 14 years.”
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