One of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting science in his remarks on condom use.
It said the Pope’s recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences.
“When any influential person, be it a religious or political figure, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record,” it said.
“Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/Aids worldwide.”
Our correspondent says the article shows how far the Pope’s attempts to justify the Vatican’s position on condoms have misfired.
Having read the Pope’s comments (namely that condom use may not actually decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS, but have the opposite effect) I actually wonder whether he intended to make a scientific statement or a sociological/cultural observation. The intelligibility of the Pope’s comments seems to hinge upon what he is comparing to. Certainly it is incorrect to say that condom use increases the risk of HIV/AIDs compared to sexual activity without a condom. However, sexual intercourse with a condom certainly does increase the possibility of infection when compared to total abstinence. Additionally, it has long been the claim of some who oppose the widespread distribution of contraception that it increases sexual activity generally–including unprotected sex–by lessening the barrier/strictures against it. I have no evidence that these views are correct, but it does make sense to me that a general allowance for sexual activity brought on by the easy availability of contraception might result in higher levels of unprotected sexual activity as well. Indeed, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of that among people that I know. Regardless, I do wonder if folks are perhaps up in arms over something not at all surprising: the Pope believes the availability of and emphasis on contraception increases the likelihood of sexual activity outside of marriage, which by extension increases the possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS when compared to restricting sexual activity to one partner within marriage. This is not the same thing as saying that the empirical evidence in the first case (comparing the possibility of infection between protected and unprotected sex) is wrong.
I may believe it is absurd for there to be any question about the appropriateness of the use of a condom by a married couple to prevent an HIV positive spouse from infecting their partner, but reason, science and observation all support the notion that abstinence is ultimately the only sure-fire way to prevent the contraction of HIV. The USAID report on HIV in Uganda indicates as much, when it discusses the behavioral changes that have resulted in a decline in HIV there, making it one of Africa’s success stories. These include a lessening stigma toward those with the disease, delayed sexual debut among youth etc… When it comes to condom use, the report makes an interesting observation:
Condom social marketing has played a key but evidently not the major role: Condom promotion was not an especially dominant element in Uganda’s earlier response to AIDS, certainly compared to several other countries in eastern and southern Africa. In Demographic Health Surveys, ever-use of condoms as reported by women increased from 1 percent in 1989, to 6 percent in 1995 and 16 percent in 2000. Male ever-use of condoms was 16 percent in 1995 and 40 percent in 2000. Nearly all of the decline in HIV incidence (and much of the decline in prevalence) had already occurred by 1995 and, furthermore, modeling suggests that very high levels of consistent condom use would be necessary to achieve significant reductions of prevalence in a generalized-level epidemic. Therefore, it seems unlikely that such levels of condom ever-use in Uganda (let alone consistent use, which was presumably much lower) could have played a major role in HIV reduction at the national level, in the earlier years. However, in more recent years, increased condom use has arguably contributed to the continuing decline in prevalence.
This seems to indicate that condom use can play an important role, but only as part of over all behavioral changes. People seem to be angry because they believe the Pope’s remarks about condoms will decrease their use, but as I recently read elsewhere: if people aren’t going to listen to the Pope’s teachings about sexual abstinence and marital fidelity, then what makes anyone think his views of condoms will impact the behavior of those same people? It seems to me that, rather than critisizing a statement that is utterly unsurrprising given the source, those folks who are admirably waging the war against HIV in Africa ought to accept the support of the Roman Catholic and other Churches where they can, and take a lesson from the glimers of hope in Uganda, which seem to have been the result of widespread cooperation between faith communities, the government, and the medical field.