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The Pope, condoms and HIV transmission rates

Pope Benedict IXI, a man of enormous religious authority, has been on a goodwill mission in Africa and making controversial comments to reporters (on a plane) in Yaoundé, Cameroon. According to amFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), the Pope “reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.” This dogmatic “sex is for reproduction only” point of view, is, ill-informed, negligent and antiquated.

Even with a massive amount of evidence showing that condoms can be up to 95% effective in preventing the transmission of HIV (when used consistently and correctly) the Pope has “suggested that condoms are exacerbating the epidemic rather than helping control it.” Yahoo News has directly quoted the Pope as saying “You can’t resolve [HIV/AIDS] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

I am boggled, really.
• Condoms have been proven, time and time again to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS when used properly*
• In a 2007 estimate, more than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live with HIV or AIDS.
• According to BBC, an estimated 20% of Africans follow the Catholic religion.

When I think about a public figure being on a goodwill mission, I don’t normally envision the figure specifically telling a group of people to avoid the use of something that could save their lives. amFAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost hit the nail on the head: “Condoms are an indispensable part of evidence-based HIV prevention programs and are necessary to curb the growing global epidemic. Health care and aid workers must be allowed to distribute them and teach people how to use them correctly”**

Thankfully I have read very few articles about health care workers not being allowed to distribute condoms to communities in need. I have however, read follow-up studies showing that many communities don’t continue to use condoms correctly and consistently, which is disheartening. More often than not, aid agencies find that getting past cultural objections to condom use is the hardest challenge.

On a more heartening note, a BBC article I encourage you to read, Pope’s condom stance sparks row reveals feelings from three European countries all boasting high numbers of Catholic Church members. French foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier: “while it is not up to us to pass judgment on Church doctrine, we consider that such comments are a threat to pubic health policies and the duty to protect human life.” Germany’s Health Minister Ulla Schmidt: “modern assistance to the developing world today must make access to family planning available to the poorest of the poor – especially the use of condoms. Anything else would be irresponsible.” Bert Koenders, Dutch Development Minister has been added to my list of people I’d like to meet before I die because of his comments. By the Pope “forbidding people from protecting themselves” was “extremely harmful and very serious. The pope is making matters worse.”

Another BBC article Why the Pope opposes condoms brings to light a well-balanced view from a senior Roman Catholic Church member Belgian Cardinal Goddfried Daneels: “using a condom with the intention of stopping disease was morally different than using one to prevent the creation of life.”

*• CDC.
“>Condoms and Their Use in Preventing HIV Infection and Other STDs
. Atlanta, GA: CDC, 1999.
• CDC. Male Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2002.

**emphasis mine

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  • Sarah

    This comment is actually from AMANDA (who can be found here: http://wegohealth.ning.com/profile/amanda64) but I wanted to get a discussion going here so I moved it over!

    Sarah, I’m so glad you tackled this topic. It’s difficult not to have a strong reaction to such statements. Especially for me, in my relationship with my old super-religious, conservative self in contrast to my new, open-minded and open-hearted self. While I still respect the Catholic church (it made me who I am for better and worse and I honor all of the good things it does for so many), I have a few very clear oppositions to its policies. I am fighting a very strong urge to go off topic here so I will try to restrain my fingers from typing in out-of-control mode.

    I believe that since the church is absolutely concrete about its opinions on life and its opinions on charity – it should combine the two and do anything it can to help Africa and other nations in trouble. I’m appalled that this is even a discussion. It’s almost as though Pope Ben knows that no publicity is bad publicity (almost like a young celebrity, no?) and is purposely being difficult for attention. I’m saddened that there is a risk of so many suffering because of his words. It doesn’t do good things for the public’s opinion of the church itself (especially when people are so taken aback by the very idea of the Pope) and it doesn’t bode well for world leaders in general. Condoms are such a minute thing that can potentially make a *huge* difference. They are cheap to produce and simple to use. No one, not even the Pope or the President or a king, could stop people from having sex. It’s not ever going to happen. And actually, now that I think about it, it is a terribly condescending western idea to impose its concepts of abstinence on other cultures. It’s absolutely disgusting actually. What right does anyone have to talk down to Africa, first of all, and second of all – talk down to them while claiming moral authority (over something as big as sex)? Their culture is not ours. And to impose that is an issue of incorrect cultural relativity. If they came over here and tried to tell us what to do, according to their culture, we would laugh and tell them NO WAY. It wouldn’t even happen, though, because third world countries are powerless in the realm of our industrialized world. It’s moral colonialism and it’s upsetting. We’ve done it before – disguising manipulation as help. We don’t have the right to say ‘they want our help. they need our help.’ Because a) we don’t know if that’s true and b) who gave us that authority? And if they do want our help – we shouldn’t be saying, “oh yeah? well if you want our help you better sit back and listen to everything we have to say about everything because you asked for it.”
    But – I think those who can help should. Period. And the more developed nations should be offering advice and help – but not on such strict terms! We’ve eaten away at others’ culture before and that shouldn’t happen again. Understanding that AIDS is an epidemic, we should be changing OUR rules in order to do anything to help them. I’m not asking the Catholic church to make exceptions left and right for people everywhere – I’m asking for compassion! You’d think an organization that considers themselves to be so above modernity and above the third world would allow them to have their own set of rules. The church should not be making rules for anyone outside of the Catholic faith. Period. It’s not right. It’s what gives the church such a bad name. It’s what has caused wars for hundreds and hundreds of years!

    I have a hard time even saying – at least let Africa have condoms, Pope. Because really, let ANYONE have condoms. But my using the word ‘let’ implies that we are looking for permission from the Pope again. Which brings us back to who is a moral authority of whom. I’m getting off track. Especially for the fact that only 20% of Africans are Catholic (!) – the Pope should not be addressing them all in the way that he has. I hope Africa takes his words with a huge grain of salt and only takes his loving words to heart. People, like the Pope, who cannot physically or morally or even legally modernize their way of thinking have no right to speak FOR the modern community that they supposedly govern. Leaders by their very nature should be constantly updating their policies and constantly evolving in order to best maintain not only their power but also their impact! But again, I see where this could be argued as a slippery slope. The claim is that if the Catholic church starts going back on SOME policies then eventually ALL of them will be susceptible and the entire faith will erode down to nothing. They want to remain a beacon of Truth despite modernity. And I completely understand this. People cannot trust something that has a shifting foundation. But the church IS NOT founded upon condoms or even sex. It is founded upon LOVE and Jesus. And it’s no doubt that Jesus would be walking amongst people with AIDS if he were around today. He probably would be handing out condoms and telling the Pope to relax. He was cool like that. But I can feel myself about to critique the church in a way that is off topic and going to be mind-numbing to go into anyway.

    Anyway, thanks for your post. It is an important issue of health, which is why it belongs on here. And it is an issue of humanity, which is why it needs to be talked about everywhere. (I totally just invaded your blog post with my comment! sorry! My typing got the best of me.) ☺

  • Sarah

    My response to AMANDA’s previous comment:

    Amanda, a further tackle of your post/comment! First, let me thank you for being willing, as an active member of the Catholic Church to step out and share your feelings with me. For now, it seems that most people are just staying out of it around here. I know we’ve both directed some traffic this way, but I think a lot of people, Catholic or not, are leery of speaking up or saying the “wrong” thing.

    I am encouraged to see more articles and blogs popping up with the same “their culture is not ours” line because I think that is a huge realization everyone needs to keep in mind. The other thing you touched on that I wanted to bring up again is that industrial nations are more than willing to offer help … with terms. Those terms are oftentimes (like now) not possible to meet, leaving the countries “at fault” for not being able to accept the help. It’s a vicious cycle. The statement from Cardinal Daneels “using a condom with the intention of stopping disease [is] morally different than using one to prevent the creation of life” should be given more attention …can we send the Pope an email with that line?

    I have read a few more articles in the past 24 hours about how most Africans are taking the Pope’s words with a grain of salt because they aren’t all Catholic. However, I feel like because of his authority over the church, Pope Benedict has to say words like these; but they could have been changed or given with a disclaimer of types (possible? I dunno!) I would agree with you that the church is set in some very old rooted and strict foundational ways and that if it were to be any other way, if a Pope were to suddenly change his mind/the foundation of the church, the infrastructure would crumble.

    Truth in modernity in any religion is a slippery slope and can really throw panic into the works of a faith. I do, one hundred percent, agree that the Christian church (all sects of the Christian church) is founded upon love and Jesus. Jesus would be the one hanging out with the HIV+ and AIDS patients today – no doubt about that! You are probably right on the fact that he would probably tell the Pope to relax a bit, too; but who knows!

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