Catholic Church's condom stance unfairly criticized

  • March 30, 2009
{mosimage}A leading HIV researcher says Pope Benedict XVI was unfairly criticized for his comments against condoms as an effective AIDS prevention strategy in Africa.

“Abstinence is the best message for young people, particularly if they are reached before they are sexually active,” Edward C. Green, director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project , told The Catholic Register. “For Africa, (promoting condoms) may be exacerbating the problem.”

On his first trip to Africa, the Pope told reporters on March 17 that condom distribution was increasing the problem of fighting AIDS on the continent. The comments unleashed a backlash of criticism from AIDS activists and European leaders, including some who have called Benedict’s statements a “dangerous doctrine.”

According to UNAIDS , about 22 million Africans are living with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. They account for two-thirds of all HIV-positive people in the world. The UN agency also reports that 75 per cent of all AIDS-related deaths in 2007 were in sub-Saharan Africa.

Green said based upon the scientific data in several African countries, condoms have not worked as an effective strategy in reducing the rates of HIV/AIDS infection. Instead, what’s been working are programs which have been promoting fidelity and monogamy such as in Uganda where infection rates began to fall in the mid-1990s.

In Uganda, studies had reported a decrease in the number of multiple partners, he said, adding that national programs discouraging polygamy are also in other African countries.

And in Swaziland, a country with one of the highest HIV rates in the world, Green said there has been a decline in rates since programs discouraging multiple and concurrent sexual partners were introduced.

On why condoms haven’t been effective, Green said it could be because of what is called “risk compensation,” meaning that some people who use condoms feel that they are “safer than they actually are and take more risks.”

Green said the so-called “ABC” method is the best method so far. ABC stands for “Abstain, be faithful or use a condom.”

Abstinence works for those who are not sexually active, especially young people. But for those 15 to 49, he said it’s “not relevant.” 

Condoms are increasingly being understood as a backup strategy for those who will be faithful, Green said.

But he added that in Thailand or Cambodia, condom prevention strategies have worked among prostitutes and their clients who are based in brothels.

Catholic church teaching, however, doesn’t support contraception.

Prof. Moira McQueen of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute said the reaction to the Pope’s comments demonstrates a dismissive attitude towards religion in society. McQueen said people who don’t accept moral arguments in this debate need to look at the scientific evidence.

“The Pope was talking about valuing persons and women not as sex objects, and the stability that comes from fidelity and monogamy,” McQueen said.

The Pennsylvania-based U.S. National Catholic Bioethics Centre said in a March 23 statement on its web site that politics also has a role to play.

It cited a study commissioned by UNAIDS researchers at the University of California at San Francisco which found that condoms were not effective in preventing HIV/AIDS in Africa, adding that UNAIDS refused to publish that study.

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