Why BBC Was Wrong About AIDS Prevention

SPUC Director Says Science Backs Up Church's Emphasis on Chastity

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LONDON, NOV. 21, 2003 (Zenit.org).- A recent television program on AIDS prevention failed to note that scientific evidence indicates the Catholic Church is right when it advocates abstinence and marital fidelity, says a pro-life observer.



John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said as much in an open letter to the director general of BBC in response to the network's program "Sex and the Holy City."

The program, which was screened to coincide with the recent 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II, claimed to investigate the Church's teachings on sexuality.

Smeaton shared with ZENIT the scientific and empirical evidence that contradicts the BBC's statements, which he thinks implied that the Pope's personal views on contraception and abortion are causing misery and death in the developing world.

Q: What inspired you to write this open letter to the BBC?

Smeaton: The BBC continues to command a great deal of influence and respect around the world, but it remains accountable to virtually no one. When it makes unsubstantiated and misleading allegations of this nature, the results are very damaging for all those who work to protect human life.

SPUC is not a religious organization, but the Panorama program attacked the Catholic Church's teachings on abortion and human sexuality that we share. We felt duty-bound as a Society to expose its one-sided and inaccurate coverage of this subject.

Q: What were your main points of contention with the BBC program?

Smeaton: From beginning to end, the program presupposed that the Church's prohibition of abortion and birth control was the major cause of poverty and suffering in the developing world. This view was never once challenged in the course of the program.

In the part of the program that dealt with Nicaragua, cheap pro-abortion tactics were used unashamedly, such as the use of unreferenced figures for maternal death through illegal abortion and the portrayal of pregnant child rape-victims as the norm.

In the section on Manila, outdated Malthusian arguments were used to present contraception as the magical answer to poverty and homelessness. In the part about Kenya, the program went so far as to suggest that the Church was condemning people to death from AIDS by "peddling rumor and superstition."

We are not saying that the issues do not warrant scrutiny. Our major complaint is that the BBC made no attempt at presenting a balanced, honest and accurate report.

Q: What are the problems with using condoms as the primary solution to stopping AIDS?

Smeaton: The major problem is that they are not safe. This is not even a contentious point. The condom manufacturers themselves point this out. The issue of viral leakage is certainly open to dispute but, even simply taking into account the danger of a condom's rupturing or slipping off, the risk of HIV transmission is very real.

Condom use may reduce the risk of transmission, but to spread the message that condom use prevents AIDS is a dangerous lie. It is no good saying that the risk is "only 15%," or "only 1 in 10" when we are talking about human lives.

We have to ask ourselves whether the decision-makers and birth control advocates would be quite so cavalier if we were talking about a terminal condition that was transmitted non-sexually. For example, would health care professionals advise a chain smoker at serious risk of lung cancer to smoke cigarettes with better filters rather than giving up smoking altogether?

Worse, would they advise him to give his wife and children masks to reduce the amount of smoke they breathed in so that he could smoke freely around the house rather than telling him to act responsibly and not expose them to any risk at all?

The second major problem is that condoms encourage irresponsible behavior because people believe themselves to be better protected than they actually are. A paper entitled "Condoms and Seat Belts: The Parallels and the Lessons," which was published in a UK medical journal called The Lancet, noted that "a vigorous condom promotion policy could increase rather than decrease unprotected sexual exposure if it has the unintended effect of encouraging a greater overall level of sexual activity."

The figures bear this out. Botswana has the highest distribution of condoms, but 39% of the population is infected with AIDS. However, when the archbishop of Nairobi made the same point in a reputable medical journal, he was accused of talking "scientific nonsense."

Q: Are there independent scientific studies that back up objections to condoms?

Smeaton: Yes there are. First, to reaffirm my previous point, there is not a single scientific study I have come across that promotes condoms as 100% effective.

All reputable studies admit a failure rate caused by a variety of factors. Besides the ones already mentioned, latex is a natural substance that can degrade if stored in unsuitable conditions, if exposed to extremes of temperature or if stored for an extended length of time.

Condoms are also used incorrectly in many cases. Studies often refer to "ideal" or "consistent and proper" use compared with "typical" use, where the failure rate and associated risks are higher.

To give a couple of examples, the U.S. National Institute of Health study on condoms that was cited in the Panorama program gives a failure rate of between 1.6% and 3.6%. It also quotes an estimate from National Surveys of Family Growth that suggested that 14% of couples experienced an unintended pregnancy during the first year of "typical" condom use.

With any failure rate connected with pregnancy, one has to bear in mind that a woman can only become pregnant for between five and seven days of her cycle whereas a person can be infected with HIV at any time. Also, while a conception involves the creation of a new life regardless of how the couple considers the child, HIV infection can only ever be a tragedy.

Q: Could you explain why programs based on promoting abstinence and marital fidelity may be preferable to massive distributions of condoms?

Smeaton: Programs based on abstinence and marital fidelity are always preferable to condom distribution in the fight against AIDS -- and it is not just the Church that tells us this. The World Health Organization and the condom companies say so, too.

Now, condom companies are not exactly supporters of the "theology of the body," nor are they guardians of Christian marriage. However, even the makers of Durex condoms say quite clearly that "for complete protection from HIV and other [sexually transmitted infections], the only totally effective measure is sexual abstinence or limiting sexual intercourse to mutually faithful, uninfected partners."

The logic of abstinence and marital fidelity programs is beautifully simple and straightforward. If a person sleeps around and uses a condom, they run the risk, however reduced, of contracting HIV; yet no one has ever died as a direct result of virginity.

It is the same if a man and a woman are faithful to one another in marriage, having abstained beforehand. The Church's teaching on human sexuality is not the idealistic dream that the Panorama program claimed. It is the common-sense system by which billions of people have lived over generations.

Q: What is the success rate of AIDS prevention or reduction in areas that have abstinence and marital fidelity programs compared with areas where condoms are distributed?

Smeaton: Uganda is perhaps the biggest success story in the fight against AIDS and much of its achievement is because of changes in sexual behavior, particularly emphasis on abstinence and fidelity.

Condoms have been promoted as a last resort, but a report by USAID on Uganda found that condoms were not a major factor in the decrease in HIV transmission. In fact, the decline in transmission rates began before the widespread promotion of condoms.

Critics of abstinence claim that people are not strong enough to resist, but this is unsubstantiated propaganda. In one district of Uganda, it was noted that fewer than 5% of 13- to 16-year-olds were sexually active in 2001 compared with 60% in 1994, a significant change in sexual behavior achieved in just seven years.

Unlike some of its neighboring countries, Uganda has had a decline in HIV transmission for well over a decade and 98% of people with no education are aware of AIDS -- one of the highest awareness rates in the world.

Q: What are the best ways of changing public attitudes and the conventional wisdom about using condoms to fight AIDS?

Smeaton: We need to circulate honest, accurate information. The facts speak for themselves. Governments and aid agencies need to put aside their anti-family agendas and put their energies into programs that actually make a difference.

The public needs to be made aware that abstinence and monogamy are positive and beneficial choices for individuals and for society. No one should be condemned to die because of Western resistance to responsible sexual behavior based on a model of marital fidelity.