The Achilles' Heel of Condoms

Chastity and Fidelity Proving More Effective

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By Father John Flynn



ROME, MARCH 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Once more the Catholic Church is under fire for its opposition to condoms.

Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recently accused the Church of hypocrisy on the issue of condoms at an event organized by the country's health ministry, Reuters reported March 12.

The agency also reported the response of Cardinal Eugênio de Araújo Sales, retired archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, in which he criticized the government's condom program in a newspaper article. The policy of mass condom distribution, he wrote, promotes a culture of sexual promiscuity.

A statement issued by Brazil's episcopal commission on family and life also rejected Silva's accusation. The commission insisted on the need to educate adolescents in good moral principles.

Governments in many countries increasingly favor the wholesale distribution of condoms in an attempt to reduce teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexual diseases. Earlier this year in Scotland, condoms were being distributed to children as young as 13, Edinburgh's Evening News reported Jan. 16.

The newspaper reported that data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that in 2005 a total of 53,638 free condoms were issued to children 13-15 in Edinburgh and surrounding areas.

Simon Dames, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, commented on the program, noting the inconsistency of a government policy that bans smoking for those under 18, yet promotes sexual activity by distributing condoms to those still under the legal age of consent -- 16 -- for sexual relations.

In the United States, a joint statement by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, and Bishop Nicholas Di Marzio of Brooklyn criticized the city's government for distributing free condoms on Valentine's Day, the Associated Press reported Feb. 16.

The bishops' statement said that the only way to protect against sexually transmitted diseases is through abstinence before marriage and fidelity after.

Health authorities in Washington, D.C., also gave away 250,000 condoms in the weeks preceding Valentine's Day, the Washington Post reported Feb. 16.

Church's stance vindicated

According to Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, premarital abstinence, as well as fidelity between spouses, are far more effective means to prevent AIDS. The cardinal made these remarks at a conference in Rome on AIDS, reported the Associated Press on Dec. 20.

A growing body of evidence backs up the cardinal's statement. On March 2 the Washington Post published a lengthy article examining the experience of Botswana in dealing with AIDS.

The newspaper noted that a number of studies single out the practice of having sex with multiple partners "as the most powerful force propelling a killer disease through a vulnerable continent."

The Washington Post cited a July report by southern African AIDS experts and officials that put "reducing multiple and concurrent partnerships" as their first priority for preventing the spread of HIV. The region accounts for 38% of total HIV infections in the world.

The article described how Botswana has followed for many years the policy recommended by international experts of promoting condoms and distributing antiretroviral drugs. All to no avail. The contagion rate for HIV in the country is the among the fastest growing in the world. Around 25% of the population is currently infected.

Fidelity campaigns were never seriously promoted in Botswana, the Washington Post observed, but condoms were. A $13.5 million campaign for condom promotion was launched in the country, thanks to the financial support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Merck pharmaceutical company. The amount spent on promoting condoms was 25 times more than what was spent on abstinence programs.

"Soaring rates of condom use have not brought down high HIV rates," the article concluded. "Instead, they rose together, until both were among the highest in Africa."

Changing behavior

The importance of modifying the way people act, instead of programs based on condom distribution, is increasingly being recognized by medical experts.

On March 11, 2006, the British Medical Journal published an article entitled "Risk Compensation: The Achilles' Heel of Innovations in HIV Prevention?"

Authored by a team of writers headed by Michael Cassell, the article observed that while pharmaceuticals and other measures can help reduce the spread of HIV, they may also inhibit the change to safer behaviors by diminishing people's perceptions of risks.

Condom promotion campaigns, combined with a reduction in risk perception, "may have contributed to increases in inconsistent use, which has minimal protective effect, as well as to a possible neglect of the risks of having multiple sexual partners," the article commented.

The authors also noted that studies in a number of Western countries show that the promise of increased access to antiretroviral treatment "has been associated with significant increases in risky behavior."

Prior to this confirmation of the need to change sexual behavior, came from a study carried out in Zimbabwe's rural population between 1998 and 2003. An article entitled "Understanding HIV Epidemic Trends in Africa," published Feb. 3, 2006, in Science magazine, reported on the study's findings.

Authors Richard Hayes and Helen Weiss wrote that a reduction in HIV prevalence was achieved due to changes in sexual behavior. The changes involved delaying the onset of sexual activity by adolescents and a reduction in the number of casual sexual partners.

A related theme in the debate is the question of promoting abstinence. The negative consequences of initiating sexual relations at an early age was highlighted in an article published in the February issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

The article, "Adolescent Sexual Debut and Later Delinquency," by Stacy Armour and Dana Haynie, observed that the question of ill effects resulting from sex outside marriage is a controversial point in the debate over whether to promote abstinence. Up until now, however, there has been little research on the topic.

Armour and Haynie used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health to examine interconnections between the age of sexual debut and subsequent delinquency problems. The study covered some 12,000 students and the findings were controlled for variables such as age, race and family structure.

Among the conclusions from the study was the finding that premature initiation of sexual activity increases the risks of delinquency. Similarly, delaying sexual activity later than one's peers "offers a protective effect and reduces the risks of engaging in subsequent delinquency." The corresponding negative and positive effects go beyond adolescence and persist until early adulthood.

A sustainable solution

The importance of a solution based on a complete vision of the human person was the theme of a message published by African bishops for the last World AIDS Day, observed Dec. 1.

The document was published by the Catholic Information Service for Africa on Nov. 21, and signed by Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar.

"We Catholic bishops of Africa encourage everyone to consider the deeper causes of the pandemic," it declared. The problem is not just medical or technical, but involves deeper moral issues. In addition to committing the Church in providing health care for those who are sick, the statement pointed out the need to preach the Gospel message.

"As the Church's mission is to address the whole person in all dimensions of life, we feel the special responsibility to revitalize the strong moral values in our societies," the document added. "That is what will lead to a true, sustainable solution to AIDS in Africa."

An argument that unfortunately continues to be ignored by many governments and organizations.