Pope Benedict not the enemy of AIDS prevention

By  Joanne Mcgarry, Catholic Register Special
  • March 26, 2009
{mosimage}For those working in media education and advocacy, news and comment about papal statements tend to follow a predictable pattern. Within a lengthy speech or series of speeches, there will be mention of church teaching on sexuality. Regardless of what else was said, response will be swift, negative and sneering, sometimes not without an implication that really, perhaps celibate old men should not be addressing such matters at all.

So it was with Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Africa. During a press conference en route, in answer to a question of which he had advance notice, he confirmed the church’s belief that condoms are not the answer to stemming the AIDS crisis. Reacting immediately, the Toronto Star quoted Stephen Lewis, chairman of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, who said the Pope must be “living on the moon” to reject such sound science as condoms as an AIDS preventative. The Halifax Chronicle Herald was perhaps more balanced, stating that condoms are not the complete solution, but editorializing that “Personal responsibility, as the Pope says, is the key. That, however, includes condom use.” In the Edmonton Sun, Lynn Cockburn advises that “the Pope’s attitude toward condoms, abortion and women has got to be significant in the field of paleontology.” Similar comment was available in most newspapers.
Not surprisingly, given the seriousness of the AIDS crisis, governments were quoted as well, including officials from France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. All indicated that condoms must be part of any AIDS-fighting strategy. Perhaps the most snide commentator of them all,  CBC  The Hour’s George Stroumboulopoulos, huffed on March 17 that the papal remarks were “not only idiotic but dangerous… I mean come on, the UN, the World HEALTH Organization, that’s HEALTH, says they (condoms) work.”

We can complain about media bias and document as many cases as we like, but we still need to ask whether we’re just shooting the messenger. Is there in fact something dangerous or irresponsible about promoting abstinence or monogamy as the best way to halt the spread of AIDS? What have we achieved through 20-odd years of giveaway programs, and are there any plain numbers to back up claims of success? Is the Vatican the only voice to state that condoms should not have primacy in the battle against AIDS? With approximately 22 million sufferers in sub-Saharan Africa, the search for effective prevention and treatment remains urgent.

The most-cited UN study cites a 10-per-cent failure rate for condoms as a method of disease prevention in conditions of correct and consistent use. The real-life failure rate may well be higher. At the same time, Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, says that measurable declines in transmission can be traced not to condom programs, but to programs encouraging behaviour change.

“Many countries that have not seen declines in HIV have seen increases in condom use, but in every country worldwide in which HIV has declined there have been increases in levels of faithfulness and usually abstinence as well. If AIDS prevention is to be based on evidence rather than ideology or bias, then fidelity and abstinence programs need to be at the centre of programs for general populations.”

The first ladies of Kenya and Uganda are among the African voices on record stating that behaviour change must be at the core of any AIDS-combating strategy.

A 10-per-cent failure rate (at best), in countries where in some cases one-quarter of citizens are infected with HIV, still leaves plenty of room for the disease to spread. Moreover, condoms have little impact on the exposure to HPV or other skin-on-skin infections.  A misguided approach to public health is more “dangerous” than what the church proposes.

There is no magic bullet that will eradicate AIDS. In the developing world, the reckless behaviour that causes most transmission of the HIV virus among adults is aggravated by poor living conditions and the inequality of women, who too often lack the power to refuse an infected partner. These are problems that church teaching on sexuality addresses well, through its emphasis on the sanctity of marriage, the equal status of husband and wife, and indeed the equal dignity of all people.

The Christian tradition of caring for the sick is also evident in worldwide AIDS statistics. About one-fourth of the world’s AIDS victims are cared for directly by Catholic agencies, making the church the largest single private institution involved in AIDS treatment.

A press conference is probably not the best environment for putting forth church teaching as it may apply to a serious health crisis. But the Pope’s words were consistent with Catholic tradition, and his is plainly not the only voice to seek a better way.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, which promotes a fair hearing for church teaching in the public forum.)

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