Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa
BOSTON, Mass. (Commonweal Magazine) – As a young physician, I often second-guess myself. In practicing medicine such self-criticism is warranted, even obligatory, because a wrong diagnosis can lead to misguided therapy and may end in death. After working at a Catholic hospital in the small sub-Saharan country of Swaziland, however, there is one diagnosis I pronounce with uncharacteristic certitude: AIDS.
HIV/AIDS ACTIVISTS SHOUT DURING RALLY – HIV/AIDS activists shout slogans during a Treatment Action Campaign protest march in Cape Town, South Africa, April 23. The march was in support of a conference in South Africa seeking ways to make community-driven HIV prevention work in a country with one of the world's highest infection rates. (CNS/Reuters)
The typical patient is a young woman between 18 and 30 years of age. She is wheeled into the examining room in a hospital chair or dragged in, supported by her sister, aunt, or brother. She is frequently delirious; her face is gaunt; her limbs look like desiccated twigs. Surprisingly, the young woman is already a mother many times over, yet she will not live to see her children grow up. More shocking still, she is married; her husband infected her with the deadly virus.
This is the reality: a married woman living in Southern Africa is at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV than an unmarried woman. Extolling abstinence and fidelity, as the Catholic Church does, will not protect her; in all likelihood she is already monogamous. It is her husband who is likely to have HIV. Yet refusing a husband’s sexual overtures risks ostracism, violence, and destitution for herself and her children.
Given these realities, isn’t opposing the use of condoms tantamount to condemning countless women to death? In the midst of the AIDS epidemic, which has already killed tens of millions and preys disproportionately on the poor, the condom acts as a contra mortem and its use is justified by the Catholic consistent ethic of life.
At least, this is the view of many Catholics at the front lines of the global HIV battle. Catholic organizations mercifully provide around 25 percent of the care AIDS victims receive worldwide. Many of the clergy and laity involved in treating people with AIDS, who otherwise fully ascribe to the church’s teachings on sexual ethics and the sanctity of marriage, nevertheless endorse the use of condoms. They argue that the preservation of human life is paramount.
Father Valeriano Paitoni, working in Săo Paulo, Brazil, summarized this perspective: “AIDS is a world epidemic, a public-health problem that must be confronted with scientific advances and methods that have proven effective,” he said. “Rejecting condom use is to oppose the fight for life.”
Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa has also been imploring the Vatican to view condom use as curtailing the transmission of death rather than precluding the transmission of life. In South Africa, 5.3 million people are infected with HIV and 25 percent of all pregnant women test positive for the virus.
Bishop Dowling prays that the Holy Spirit will intervene to change minds in Rome. He believes Pope Benedict XVI’s view on the use of condoms would change, “if his visits to poor countries were done in such a way that he could sit in a shack and see a young mother dying of AIDS with her baby.”
Not long ago, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels stated on Dutch television that although sex with a person infected with HIV is to be avoided, “if it should take place, the person must use a condom in order not to disobey the commandment condemning murder, in addition to breaking the commandment which forbids adultery.” He added: “Protecting oneself against sickness or death is an act of prevention. Morally, it cannot be judged on the same level as when a condom is used to reduce the number of births.”
The Vatican has not budged. Condoms thwart conception; therefore, by the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, their use is proscribed. End of debate. In a 2003 Vatican document titled Family Values Versus Safe Sex, the use of condoms in HIV-prevention programs was forcefully rejected:
The Catholic bishops of South Africa, Botswana, and Swaziland categorically regard the widespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms as an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV/AIDS for the following reasons. The use of condoms goes against human dignity. Condoms change the beautiful act of love into a selfish search for pleasure-while rejecting responsibility. Condoms do not guarantee protection against HIV/AIDS. Condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, has elaborated on the latter point: “In the case of the AIDS virus, which is around 450 times smaller than the sperm cell, the condom’s latex material obviously gives much less security... to talk of condoms as ‘safe sex’ is a form of Russian roulette.” Cardinal Trujillo called on ministries of health to require “a warning, that the condom is not safe” on packages distributed worldwide.
Although it is true that condoms are not 100-percent effective in preventing HIV infection, they do reduce the risk of transmission significantly. Comparing condom use to a suicidal dare, as Cardinal Trujillo does, is scientifically inaccurate and socially irresponsible.
A preponderance of medical research demonstrates that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV. For example, the European Study Group on Heterosexual Transmission of HIV followed 124 discordant couples (in which only one of the pair is ...
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