18 September 2010

Notes on the Papal Visit 2: Condoms, AIDS, and Africa

You know the story: supposedly millions upon millions of people in Africa are dying of HIV-AIDS because the Pope tells them they shouldn't use condoms, and they obey him on this because they're too thick to do otherwise. I've heard this too many times to count. There's only one problem with it: it's not true, as people would realise if they only stopped to think.

Brendan O'Neill utterly nails this nonsense in yesterday's Spiked, concisely making points I've been cumbersomely making for years. He glosses over the all-important fact that the Church is the single largest provider of healthcare -- notably for victims of HIV-AIDS --  in Africa, such that one could argue that the Church does more to fight HIV-AIDS than any other organisation in the world. Instead he points out that HIV-AIDS is most prevalent in African countries with tiny Catholic minorities rather than in countries with sizeable ones, and identifies the racism that's implicit in claims about the Church worsening the AIDS crisis, noting that such claims are wholly underpinned by the assumption that Africans are idiots, utterly in thrall to religious teachings, unlike sophisticated Europeans and Americans who cannily ignore the ones they find inconvenient. Have a read  and then think about the fact that while a few priests and bishops have said some false and dangerous things about condoms, their opinions don't necessarily represent Church teaching, anymore than my old blog from back in the day used to represent the official position of my old employer.*

And then take a look at these two maps, the top one showing the countries in Africa with the highest proportions of Catholics, and the bottom one showing the countries with the highest rates of HIV-AIDS, and then have a think about why there's not exactly a huge overlap between the most Catholic countries and the ones most blighted by HIV-AIDS. Does anyone seriously think that Church teaching carries in any meaningful way in countries where only small minorities of people are Catholic?

There is also the possibility that Pope may in any case have well been right when he opined that condoms may actually make the problem worse, by lulling people into a false sense of safety, thereby encouraging reckless behaviour, or so at least Harvard's Edward C Green, among others, has argued.

I know, intuitively this seems wrong, but according to that article, current empirical evidence supports the Pope on this. Ben Goldacre, for all his brilliance elsewhere, looks utterly guilty of bad science himself when he claims otherwise.

It's worth noting too, as pretty much everyone seems unaware of this, that the Pope has never said that condoms shouldn't be used when having sex outside of marriage. Not a word. All of his comments on the matter have concerned contraception within marriage. Why? Well, the Church regards sex as being exclusively for marriage - it is the act of marital communion, for want of a better way of putting it - and regards all extramarital sex as intrinsically wrong. Whether you agree with that is, in this context, neither here nor there. What matters is that the Church isn't in the business of advising people on how to mitigate things it regards as sins. It says, with God, 'thou shalt not commit adultery'. It doesn't say, 'we'd rather you didn't commit adultery, but if you must cheat on your wife with some random skank, for whatever reason, well, it might be prudent to wear one of these things.'

So everything the Church -- as opposed to the odd priest or bishop -- says about condoms pertains to marital sex only. Why does it do this in the case of HIV-AIDS, where they'd be used to prevent infection rather than conception? My thinking, ultimately, is that its about love. In cases where one partner in a married couple has HIV-AIDS, the Church takes the line that the most loving thing to do is to abstain from sex, not to engage in it with or without a condom.

Why? Well, look at the figures that Goldacre cites. Over a given period, any such couple engaging in regular sex without a condom can be sure that the disease will be passed from one partner to another, but for such a couple engaging in regular sex with a condom, the disease will only be a fifth as likely to be passed on. There's the crux of the issue: over a period that would cause faithful monogamous sex without a condom to lead to a 100% infection rate, faithful monogamous sex with a condom would have a 20% infection rate, and loving abstention would have a 0% infection rate.

If I had AIDS and loved my wife, I don't think I'd be inclined to play Russian Roulette with  her body. Would you?

More tomorrow...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lesotho: the colour seems to black: 45% Roman Catholic; 45 % other Christian religion; 10% (animists, Muslims …)
But it seems to be true about aids - about 23%...
It would be interesting to have a sharper study on this country