Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dogma: a Pope’s Best Friend

HIV prevention experts have an uphill struggle as it is. HIV is mostly spread by sexual intercourse and a large proportion of the world's population engages in sexual intercourse at some time. Quite a number of people claim not to have sex but many of them turn out to be liars.

As one of the most effective ways of reducing the transmission of HIV is by using condoms, HIV experts advocate the use of condoms, unless the aim is to have children. But some religious groups, Catholics in particular, are opposed to the use of condoms.

Now, I hate to point the finger, but some of the more notable liars about their sexual behaviour have been Catholics. Worse still, the Catholic leader, Mr Gregory Pope, seems to assume that everyone chooses whether to have sex, when, where and with whom. This is not the case and some highly publicised instances of people denying other people's right not to have sex involved Catholics, often prominent ones. I'm surprised Mr Pope hasn't heard about this.

But there are a lot of things that have passed Mr Pope by, especially matters relating to sexual behaviour (and misbehaviour). He and some of his followers subscribe to the myth that latex condoms have tiny holes that the HIV virus can pass through. No, Mr Pope, there is just one hole in a condom, and it's supposed to be there.

Of course, this is not to say that things can never go wrong. For example, people can carelessly rip a condom when opening the package, perhaps by doing so with their teeth. They can damage the condom in various ways and there is a need to be careful. But this indicates that they need sex education that includes instructions on how to use condoms, preferably from people who have had experience of using them.

You say that promotion of condom use and sex education give rise to greater promiscuity; there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that this is not the case. There is also plenty of evidence to demonstrate what happens when people don't receive any sex education or only receive half baked rubbish, such as 'abstinence only' claptrap. The result of not educating people about sex is very high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (also unwanted pregnancies).

You see, Mr Pope, people who get abstinence only education, people who take vows of abstinence, perhaps even Catholic priests and brothers, still have sex; they just don't bother to use condoms, perhaps because they have never heard of them or because they have been given incorrect information about them.

You call for a responsible attitude toward sex? People need education, discussion, information, enlightenment, not the lies that anti condom campaigners have been spewing out. How do you expect people to develop a responsible attitude towards sex when you are not even responsible enough to tell the truth? Is lying no longer a sin? Or does it depend on who tells the lie or what the consequences are? Perhaps things have changed since I was a Catholic.

Look, Mr Pope, you don't know what you are talking about. Please consult the World Health Organisation, the UNFPA and UNAIDS. These organisations are experts in public health. They will tell you that "[t]he male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections." They will also confirm that "[y]oung girls and women are regularly and repeatedly denied information about, and access to, condoms. Often they do not have the power to negotiate the use of condoms. In many social contexts, men are resistant to the use of condoms."

I suggest you read this position statement carefully. It has just been revised and it contradicts many of the things you say. There's no excuse for being so badly informed and your attitude toward these matters is grossly irresponsible. I think it could justly be called culpable ignorance, if it really is ignorance.

It's interesting that one of the people who defended Mr Pope works for a Catholic NGO in Senegal. He says that his NGO doesn't promote condoms. I recently blogged about Senegal because the country has the lowest HIV prevalence in all of Africa. But one thing that has long been very common in Senegal is the use of condoms. Thankfully, this particular NGO wasn't the only one working there.

In contrast to Senegal, Rwanda and Burundi, considered to be very Catholic countries, have high rates of HIV and low rates of condom use. Also, because sex before marriage is frowned upon, for religious reasons, many men have their first sexual experience with a commercial sex worker. I know, spotting contradictions in Catholicism is like shooting fish in a barrel!

But sadly, some people will grasp at any excuse to justify their behaviour. Many people are already reluctant to use a condom to prevent unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. There are myths surrounding most aspects of HIV, how it's transmitted, how to avoid it, how to cure it, etc. But with myths, people can accept the bits they like and ignore the bits they don't like. People who don't like condoms still enjoy sex and they are not going to see Mr Pope's solution as desirable or even viable.

So Mr Pope's pronouncements about condoms not working very well and promoting promiscuity will certainly appeal to people who just don't want to use condoms. He is, effectively, preaching to the converted, telling people who don't like condoms that it is wrong to use them and that it won't help them, anyway.

No doubt, a Catholic who becomes infected with HIV, despite following Mr Pope's thoughtful advice, will have their just reward in heaven. How comforting. But let's not deceive ourselves; preaching against the use of condoms is promoting the transmission of HIV.


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