Were one to have listened uncritically to the more hysterical elements in America’s news media over the past month, one would have concluded that contraception is intractably hard to come by in the United States; but a cursory glance at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s well-appointed website gives quite the opposite impression. There, contrarily, visitors are informed that anyone in need of contraception is somewhat spoiled for choice.
If the website’s extensive online search facility does not meet with their approval, habitués can instead call 311 and ask for advice directly. And the more tech savvy — or, perhaps, desperately mobile — can download the free “NYC Condom” app to their Windows, iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android smartphones and have its GPS service direct them to the nearest provider of free contraception with devastating accuracy. Never has a society been so precisely and easily led to safe sex. (One might well ask whether someone who can afford a smartphone and its attendant bills is genuinely in need of an app that locates “free” — i.e., paid for by taxpayers — condoms, but then this is 21st-century America, and New York’s mayor is Michael Bloomberg, so such petite questions are unavoidably consumed by bigger ones.)
The NYC Condom program’s not-so-subtle slogan is “Grab a handful and go,” which, having set out yesterday to source some myself, I found to be rather a solid description of the process. And the Department of Health’s offerings are not just generous but also various: “NYC”-branded condoms are available for both men and women, and in addition to the curiously titled “Lifestyles Alternative Condom,” complimentary “Personal Lubricant” is also available at select locations.
The program’s architects have clearly taken their charge seriously, for, according to the city’s website, there are 309 distribution points within five miles of National Review’s office. (And that’s just in Manhattan; each of the other four boroughs is served equally well by the city; not to mention the likes of Planned Parenthood, the various colleges, YMCA and YWCA branches, and suchlike.) Indeed, there are so many condoms available in my Chelsea neighborhood that I’m beginning to wonder how I ever missed them.
Within a few blocks’ walk of the Empire State Building, such diverse institutions as the Cornell University Family Life Development Center, Ginger’s Bar, Kenneth Cole, the Bellevue Hospital Center, the Virology Clinic, Uncle Charlie’s bar, the Children’s Aid Society, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and the Museum of Sex hand out contraceptives with abandon. Had I literally grabbed “a handful” at each one of these distributors, I could have opened my own shop, but, as it happens, I needed to visit only the first five listed on the free iPhone app for my pockets to start bulging.
Kenneth Cole, the designer-clothes store, was the most bizarre of my visits. I had expected at least to have to sidle up to an assistant and ask sotto voce if they had “something for the weekend” behind the store counter; but evidently one need not even go to the trouble of speaking to a staff member, for, on each of the tables — which sit out in the open, next to the racks of clothes, in case, perhaps, one be put in the mood by buying a couple of shirts — are large glass bowls full of the branded “NYC Condoms.” The branch I went to was at Grand Central Terminal; let it never be said again that visitors coming into the city by train have restricted access to contraception during their inaugural moments in New York.
The Children’s Aid Society was a little more comprehensive in its offerings. It has three centers — in midtown Manhattan, Harlem, and the Bronx — all of which receive New York State Title X grants. Women can visit centers in Harlem and the Bronx to arrange for their contraception — including more permanent methods such as the ring, the patch, and the Pill. If their insurance covers contraception, the insurance must pay for it. If it does not and the woman in question is living below the federal poverty line, she will be given the contraception without charge. (The HHS mandate, remember, is not designed to help the poor; the overlap between them and those who are employed is, by definition, minuscule.) Condoms, meanwhile, are just given out gratis, although the representative I spoke to told me that relatively few people take advantage of this provision.
I also visited a fairly startled woman at the Cornell University Family Life Development Center who was sufficiently embarrassed by my brazen, unexpected request for free contraception that she started ladling the stuff into my hands from a large box she kept in a cupboard before noticing what she was doing and inviting me to “take as much as I wanted.” I asked her if she normally receives such visits and she said that she did not. But she was well aware of the NYC Condom program and explained to me that Cornell distributes contraception widely outside of its office on Madison Avenue as well as to occasional drop-ins such as myself.
The two bars I popped into had a healthy cache of condoms and lubricant in the bathroom, both of which I was invited liberally to sample. I can’t imagine that too many people turn up at opening time — 4 p.m. — and walk off with a handful of contraceptives having bought no drink, but the barmen didn’t blink, and one of them assured me that the scheme becomes more popular as the sun goes down, and with it the array of happy-hour drinks and patrons’ inhibitions. I asked him if anyone came in just to stock up or whether his inventory was largely used in emergencies. He indicated the latter.
Considering these five locations, the 304 others in Manhattan, and the considerable other — private and charitable — alternatives, condoms seem to be pretty much covered. Congress can rest easy; given the heavy involvement of bars and nightclubs, there are very few hours in the day during which one cannot acquire free contraception in New York City, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Children’s Aid Society ensure that more permanent forms are covered, too. Meanwhile, those who are employed and whose insurance plans do not cover contraceptives can walk into a CVS and pay out of their own pockets.
Such facts, however, do not really matter. As H. L. Mencken acerbically noted, “the whole purpose of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed . . . by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” To listen to the president and the various women’s groups who have so enjoyed throwing around the absurd “anti-women” hyperbole over the last month, one would think that Americans were still required to ape the cloak-and-dagger subterfuge of a drug deal in order to get their hands on contraception, and that they were paying a hefty premium into the bargain. This could not be further from the truth. In my foray, remember, I looked solely for “free” contraceptives. But — quelle horreur! — it is still possible, even normal, to buy contraceptives in every drugstore in the country. Indeed, so ample and various is the supply that it comes in a startling array of flavors, methods, and combinations. No questions are asked. Nobody is excluded.
Next time someone tells you that, if the federal government does not force all health insurers to cover contraception without raising premiums, the sky is going to fall, why not take him for a walk in a major urban area? You’ll only have to go a couple of blocks.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.