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Catholic Teaching Has the Best Way to Stop AIDS
The United Nations warned in July that China, the world's most populous country, faces a catastrophic outbreak.
Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, president of the Global Business Council on HIV/AIDS (GBC), said mankind has no choice but to end "the worst epidemic in 600 years" because it poses a major threat to peace and stability worldwide.
What might stop the spread of AIDS? The Catholic moral teaching regarding human sexual behavior, say condom critics who are working on the front lines of AIDS treatment and prevention.
"Condoms don't work," said Dr. George Mulcaire-Jones. "In addition to doing little physically to prevent the transmission of HIV, condoms exacerbate the problem by promoting promiscuity in places where that behavior is most deadly at this point in time."
Past efforts to end the epidemic, headed mostly by the United Nations, have involved shipping millions of condoms to plagued regions. In the 1990s, the U.S. Agency for International Development distributed more than 200 million condoms to AIDS-plagued nations and the problem only worsened.
And the leading U.N. agencies that deal with AIDS continue to promote condom use. In a new study titled "Young People and HIV/AIDS: Opportunity in Crisis" published by UNAIDS, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, condoms are highlighted as a critical element in fighting the spread of the disease.
"Proper condom use and other preventive behaviors, like abstinence, need to be taught early," the three U.N. organizations stated in a July 2 press release announcing the new study's publication.
Mulcaire-Jones understands the arguments about condoms; as a physician he has studied most of the research. Even when they are properly manufactured and used properly, condoms can have failure rates of up to 15%. And when defective condoms are distributed — as was the case in Tanzania, where the U.N. Population Fund was forced in May to withdraw 10 million condoms that were found to have holes and to be prone to bursting — or are used improperly, condom failure rates can be far higher.
And Mulcaire-Jones also knows firsthand condoms don't work through his regular travels to Africa — about three trips a year — to work hands-on in the war against AIDS. He volunteers his time and expertise for Maternal Life International, a Catholic organization dedicated to providing women with emergency obstetrical care and AIDS testing, prevention and treatment.
Jesuit Father Richard Cremins also battles AIDS on the front lines in Africa and agrees with Mulcaire-Jones that condoms might be a cause of rapid growth of the disease.
"The hourly jingles on African radio, like the billboards and posters plastered along its roads, tout the ease, safety and unqualified efficacy of condom use," Father Cremins wrote recently in an unpublished article. "Such messages contain a subtle yet deadly lie — that a person will be completely protected by a latex device that is often not properly used and will likely fail at least one out of 10 times."
Mulcaire-Jones, Father Cremins and other Maternal Life volunteers began working several years ago with Sister Miriam Duggan, an obstetrician-gynecologist doctor, whom some call "the Irish Mother Teresa." Sister Duggan uses her vocation to counter the spread of AIDS in Africa. Her medical philosophy and ministry are grounded in a belief that behavioral change through evangelization is the key to combating the spread of AIDS in Africa — not issuing condoms.
Mulcaire-Jones said his entire philosophy about AIDS prevention has changed as a result of his work with Sister Duggan.
"When I first started doing this, I went over to Africa as a Catholic who believed strongly in virtues of NFP [Natural Family Planning]," said Mulcaire-Jones, a resident of Butte, Mont. "But it was my belief that AIDS was so bad in Africa — that it had reached such a critical state — that we needed to forget about teaching NFP and focus on condoms. What I learned is that NFP and AIDS prevention are the same thing. The only proven way to prevent the spread of AIDS is through abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage. What I found is that AIDS prevention, in fact, leads to NFP."
Father Cremins cited medical studies that show hormonal contraception has an "AIDS-enhancing" transmission factor. Hormonal contraception, including the contraceptive pill, is believed to affect immune barriers of the vagina and cervix. One study found that prostitutes who used injection contraceptives were 240% more likely to contract HIV.
"The failure of condoms, the AIDS-enhancing effects of hormonal contraception and the need for a mature understanding of sexuality challenge us to make NFP, with its attendant values, an integral part of the primary prevention of AIDS," Father Cremins said. "In this context, NFP must move from the margins of health care to the mainstream."
To understand how important AIDS prevention is, Mulcaire-Jones said, one needs to realize that there is no AIDS cure and the best AIDS treatment drugs merely slow progress of the virus in an individual carrier. Even those treatments aren't available to the vast majority of people outside of the United States who contract HIV. In Swaziland, Mulcaire-Jones said, about $18 is spent each year on each person for medical care — an amount far insufficient for even one dose of modern HIV antibodies. Each person in Uganda consumes about $8 each year worth of health care, and only one of every 1,000 people infected with HIV are receiving medicinal treatment.
"We've looked at the numbers of people who have AIDS in Africa and run those against the availability of resources for treatment," Mulcaire-Jones said. "Based on those numbers, we figure that for every 10 people we treat we have to be successful in preventing at least 100 other people from contracting the disease in order to have made any progress at all."
Back when Mulcaire-Jones believed NFP instruction had no place in regions ravaged by runaway HIV/AIDS, he also believed that it would be nearly impossible to get African men to understand and adhere to lifestyles of abstinence and sexual faithfulness in marriage.
"I have found there is a tremendous willingness to hear and adhere to the Catholic teachings about sexual morality," Mulcaire-Jones said. "One almost senses there's a desperate thirst for this message. We are having tremendous success in getting African men to embrace this lifestyle — but first they need to learn about it. The Catholic Church really does have the answer to this."
Although recent AIDS statistics have alarmed world leaders, regional surveys contain promising information about abstinence education.
"In Uganda, where there has been an intensive AIDS prevention program centered on abstinence, HIV among 15- to 19-year-olds has dropped from 25% of the population in that age group to 9%," Mulcaire-Jones said.
"During the same period in neighboring Kenya, Malawi and Zambia — where AIDS prevention involved condom distribution and no change in sexual behavior patterns — there has been no drop in new infections," he said. "Why? Because in ideal, perfect conditions — in which the condoms are worn properly and are in perfect condition — condoms fail one in 10 times. So in perfect conditions it's not much of a guarantee, and they're seldom used in perfect conditions. Meanwhile, they send a message that sexual behavior patterns should continue on as they always have."
Wayne Laugesen. "Catholic Teaching Has the Best Way to Stop AIDS." National Catholic Register. (August 11-17, 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.
National Catholic Register