Two sides of the condom coin

By  John-Henry Westen, Catholic Register Special
  • January 4, 2008

In what came as a shock to some, U.S. First Lady Laura Bush promoted condom use “every time” in the pages of the Washington Post on Dec. 1. Writing on World AIDS Day, Bush urged: “Practise safe sex,” and advocated the “correct and consistent use of condoms” which, she said, “means not just occasionally, but every time.”

Of note, she suggested her approach was following the example of “our African counterparts.” She wrote: “Let’s take a cue from our African counterparts and follow the ABC method of prevention: Abstinence, Be Faithful, and the Correct and Consistent Use of Condoms.”

The ABC method gained fame first and foremost in Uganda where the advance of AIDS was stopped in its tracks with a focus on abstinence and fidelity, with condoms as a very distant last resort — but more on that later.

Mrs. Bush’s exact African counterpart would be in this instance Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni. And that is where this story becomes really interesting.

Rather than taking a cue from her African counterpart, the U.S. First Lady has, by advocating condom use, taken the exact opposite stance to Mrs. Museveni.

In her message for World AIDS Day last year, the Ugandan First Lady also spoke of condom use, but from a completely different perspective. “I would not be caught advising you to take any shortcuts or compromise your lives by using any device invented by man, such as condoms, in order to facilitate any desire to go against God’s clear plan for your life,” Mrs. Museveni told students at the Uganda Christian University, Mukono. “God’s plan for your life is that you should honour your body because it is His temple.”

Warning the young people that they should not be complacent as HIV infection rates rise, Mrs. Museveni asked them to encourage other students to abstain from premarital sex.

This stance of the Ugandan First Lady is not new, it was the approach which led to Uganda’s world-renowned success in fighting AIDS. In 2004 Mrs. Museveni spoke to over 2,000 youth at a conference in the national capital of Kampala telling teens to ignore those who push condoms, noting that companies which promote such products are after money.

“Don’t give your airtime to anyone talking to you about using condoms,” Mrs. Museveni said. Rather she encouraged the young people to practise “God-centred” self-control.

Now which First Lady’s advice is best to be taken when dealing with AIDS?

Well let’s see — in Uganda with the ABC program where condoms are a very last resort, the campaign has been so successful as to be likened to a highly effective vaccine. It has helped reduce HIV transmission rates from 18 per cent to six per cent.

A meta analysis titled “Condom Promotion for AIDS Prevention in the Developing World: Is It Working?” published in the medical journal Studies in Family Planning in March of 2004 found that “In many sub-Saharan African countries, high HIV transmission rates have continued despite high rates of condom use.” The study noted further that, “No clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned back a generalized epidemic primarily by means of condom distribution.”

AIDS activists in Africa are furious with the West and its push for condoms and permissive sex education for youth. With a 2003 UNAIDS report showing that condoms are ineffective in protecting against HIV an estimated 10 per cent of the time, can anyone be surprised that Africans are upset with the West proposing a bio-hazard Russian roulette for their children?

Writing in the same paper Mrs. Bush chose for her condom push, Edward Green, a medical anthropologist with 25 years of experience in Africa, and a senior researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, noted the failure of condoms to affect HIV rates. In an article published Nov. 29, 2003, in the Washington Post, co-authored by Tanzanian Professor Wilfred May, Green wrote, “The African countries with the highest levels of condom availability — Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Kenya — also have some of the highest HIV rates in the world.”

With those facts, it is no wonder that another African First Lady — Kenya’s Lucy Kibaki — has joined Uganda’s First Lady in calling for abstinence and fidelity as the only ways to bring AIDS under control. Speaking to school girls last year, Mrs. Kibaki said that sexual abstinence before marriage, not condoms, was essential to preserving their lives and futures.

Let’s hope Mrs. Bush takes some of her own advice and takes a cue from her African counterparts.

(Westen is the co-founder and editor of

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