The ad campaign moved into high gear here Dec. 1 with a number of ads in bus shelters and subway stations, as well as in the Washington Post. Ads have since appeared in Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
In its press releases, Catholics for a Free Choice states that Church opposition to the use of condoms has caused the deaths of thousands of people by undermining efforts to halt the transmission of the HIV virus. It calls for public pressure on the Church to change its position.
The ads aim to convey the impression that the Church hierarchy does not care about the AIDS problem. "Catholic people care. Do our bishops?" asks the Post ad.
Church officials were quick to point out the inaccuracies of the ads. Washington Archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs noted in the Post on Jan. 3 that the ads "accuse bishops of killing people when in fact the bishops advocate the only lifestyle to protect against HIV/AIDS: a lifestyle of abstinence outside a monogamous marriage."
The Southern African Catholic Bishops´ Conference also reacted strongly against the ads. In a press statement it noted that the bishops´ AIDS office is the second largest provider, after the region´s governments, of AIDS prevention and care programs.
Between June 2000 and November 2001, the bishops´ AIDS office funded no fewer than 116 projects. The bishops´ statement observed that even the National Department of Health in South Africa acknowledges that Catholic service providers, working through parishes, are able to get closer to the grass roots than the government´s own AIDS prevention and caring network.
An episcopal conference spokesman, Bishop Reginald Cawcutt of Cape Town, said: "The Church disapproves of trying to combat the spread of AIDS by the wholesale doling out of condoms to teen-agers. This is as likely to promote promiscuity as anything else. It shows seriously muddled thinking. The Church strongly supports and promotes -- as it has for 2,000 years -- value-based education and prevention programs. They are the only things that ultimately work."
Meanwhile, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute reported in its Dec. 28 Friday Fax that any hopes Catholics for a Free Choice had of creating a furor about the issue may have fizzled. Except for a few newspaper articles, the media have largely ignored the ad campaign.
Really the answer?
Numerous campaigns by governments and private groups have stressed the need for "safe sex" and claim the use of condoms is essential to control AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. But recent evidence points out that condoms are only partially successful in preventing the spread of diseases.
Last July 20 the National Institutes of Health in the United States published a report on the effectiveness of condoms. The panel of experts that assembled to examine the evidence found that most studies on the subject are "inadequate."
The panel noted that condom use can significantly reduce the risk of HIV for men and women, and gonorrhea for men. But there is not enough evidence to prove such use prevents gonorrhea for women, the panel concluded. Nor are condoms shown to be effective in preventing the spread of numerous other sexual diseases.
Even as contraceptives, condoms fail the test. In one study, about 3% of couples who reported using condoms consistently and correctly are estimated to experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use. In another "recent well-controlled randomized clinical trial of monogamous couples using latex male condoms for contraception over six months, the pregnancy rate during ´typical use´ was reported at 6.3%."
The panel´s report cited another estimate, from the National Surveys of Family Growth, showing that 14% of couples experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of "typical use."
Reacting to the NIH report, the president of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, physician Joe S. McIlhaney Jr. commented: "America´s youth have been lulled into a false sense of security about premarital sexual activity, believing that, as long as they use a condom, they are protected from sexually transmitted diseases. As the NIH report makes clear, there is no such thing as safe sex outside of marriage." The Austin, Texas-based institute is a nonprofit medical organization.
"Indeed, an honest look at the research leads to only one conclusion: The only realistic way for a young person to eliminate their risks of STDs and non-marital pregnancy is to remain sexually abstinent until marriage," observed McIlhaney.
65 million infected in U.S.
In fact, after years of "safe sex" campaigns, sexually transmitted diseases are more prevalent than ever. More than 65 million people in the United States are now infected with some type of sexually transmitted disease, the majority of which are incurable viral infections, says the NIH report. And about 15 million new infections occur annually.
In the United Kingdom, the situation is no less dramatic. In London, cases of gonorrhea have increased by 74% in men and 75% in women since 1995, the Times reported Jan. 29. Syphilis in men has soared up 211% in the past three years. And since 1995, chlamydia has been diagnosed in 87% more women and 120% more men.
As Lynette Burrows observed Feb. 26 in the Telegraph newspaper, casual sex isn´t safe -- no matter what the slogans say. She noted that most young people are unaware of the failure rate of condoms, having been reassured by countless ad campaigns that if you use them you are "safe."
Burrows quoted from a booklet now being distributed by health authorities to all 13-year-olds. It contains a highlighted box which says: "Fact: Only condoms provide all-in-one protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV." Further on the booklet mentions chlamydia and recommends, "Always use a condom." Yet, as the July NIH report stated, there is no clear evidence that condoms reduce the risk of transmitted diseases such as chlamydia.
Why are such government-sponsored booklets so medically inaccurate? asked Burrows. "Perhaps the answer is that there are just too many people who have either a financial interest in promoting contraception, or an ideological attachment to sexual freedom. Supporting each other, these two motives have silenced the public discussion of the danger of casual sex," she concluded. For people looking for real guidance on staying healthy, the Catholic Church may be sounding better all the time.