Frequently in discourse with non-Catholics, or some Catholics even, when the issue of contraception and the AIDS epidemic arises, there is uneasiness about the Church’s teaching on dealing with this deeply troubling matter. One might argue that by maintaining opposition to the use of condoms, the Catholic Church contributes rather to the spread of AIDS in Africa, for if the “Vatican hierarchy” cared more about people’s lives than rigid doctrines that even most Catholics reject, they would change their view to prevent the spread of AIDS. Why? It is the more “pro-life” thing to do given that it would save millions from dying from unprotected sex.
While the presented argument is well-intentioned, it is also profoundly incorrect. The Catholic Church doesn’t oppose contraception on the basis that it is a “nice rule” that Catholics should follow, but rather contraception is contra-human nature—it is an objective, moral evil that disrupts the purity and creative design of the sexual act. Much can be said on the matter, but what is relevant is that by isolating sexual pleasure from the procreative element built into the sexual act itself, one subconsciously (and consciously) affirms the sinful tendencies of lust, self-gratification, and promiscuity.
Why? If a man can sleep with multiple women (separately or even together) and experience sexual pleasure in abundance without any concern of producing children in doing so, he’ll be inclined to do it—and maybe he’ll become addicted to it (‘it’ being sexual pleasure). The result? Men objectify women, see them as objects and not as equals; men (and women too) have routine, recreational and meaningless sex unconcerned with reproduction because that “problem” has been solved. The consequences of such actions are grave and unfortunate. Not only is such action self-destructive objectively for all persons involved, it is harmful to society. Naturally such behavior leads to single mothers and dire poverty, abortions, the oppression of women, skyrocketing divorce, the growth of other vices, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
To the issue of AIDS — statistics repeatedly show that condoms really have not been very effective in the fight against AIDS despite the fact it has been the principal prevention device for the last twenty years. Billions of condoms have been shipped to Africa in order to deal with the epidemic. The countries that stress condom use are not seeing any great decline in the virus, but rather, the opposite. Luckily, there is a clear example of an African nation turning back the epidemic of AIDS by other means. In the late 1980s Uganda was viewed as the worst nation in the world in terms of HIV/AIDS infections. Currently, instead of placing the primary emphasis on condoms, they emphasized abstinence and faithfulness first. As a result, they have experienced the greatest decline in HIV in the world.
Some might assume, “Well, some protection is better than none.” Of course, this would seem to be a logical argument at first. After all, condom use can reduce the odds of HIV transmission during an act of intercourse. But it still remains that in the presence of an epidemic, unless a person changes his or her behavior, it may be only a matter of time before he or she is infected. When people are not taught the difference and are left thinking that risk reduction equals protection, they are more open to take risks that they cannot afford. Another reason why condoms have failed to stop AIDS is that when a person is infected with other STDs, they are up to five times as likely to get HIV if exposed. There are several reasons why this occurs; one reason is that many STDs cause sores that can serve as portals of entry for the virus. For example, a woman’s reproductive tract is often able to protect her from HIV. However, this natural barrier is compromised when she is infected with certain STDs. Considering that the number one determinant of STD infection is multiple sexual partners, any strategy to stop HIV that does not reduce sexual activity will have limited effect.
Why is abstinence so effective? In abstinence programs, people are encouraged to abstain from sexual activity until marriage and are encouraged to be tested for HIV regularly. The contraceptive approach doesn’t take a fundamental reality into much consideration: the infectivity rate of HIV. The infectivity rate of a disease or virus measures the likelihood of its transmission. For HIV, it is estimated on average, the odds of being infected with HIV through a single act of intercourse (without a condom) is about one in a thousand. However, when a person is first infected with HIV, he or she is highly contagious. But if this person were to get tested for HIV right away, the test would show that he or she is HIV negative, despite the fact that he or she does have the virus and can easily transmit it. Here’s why: Technically, the HIV test does not look for HIV, but for antibodies against the virus. Antibodies are what your body creates to fight off intruders. But viruses are pretty smart and it can take months before your body knows that you have one (and maybe even a decade before you know it). So if your body does not know that you have been infected with HIV, it won’t produce antibodies to attack the virus. So if the HIV test doesn’t find the antibodies, the doctors will tell you that you’re HIV negative. Meanwhile inside the body of a newly infected person, the HIV plasma viral level is very high, especially in the genital fluids (semen and cervical-vaginal fluids), because there aren’t any antibodies around to reduce their levels. Since the viral load is thousands of times higher, and the person is shedding viruses, the infectivity rate soars in the early weeks on infection.
This means that if people abstained from sex or were encouraged to wait until marriage (rather than seeing sex as a recreational activity that you can just “band-aid” with a condom), then the odds of HIV transmission would be reduced dramatically. Within a generation, HIV would no longer exist at its current epidemic levels.
Why is this important? AIDS is a transnational global health phenomenon that isn’t unique to third world countries. The Democratic Party is very concerned about this growing epidemic and often ranks it high in their list of things to do. This is certainly commendable. But, the Democrats endorse a strategy—wanton distribution of condoms—that has proven fatal and ineffective. It perhaps even makes the situation worse. The Republican Party under the leadership of President Bush began to promote abstinence in Africa (which works), but this is not very high on the list of things to do despite the fact that this is an international health crisis that is spreading at an alarming rate. In essence, neither party is giving us much needed headway. Democrats simply wish to throw money and condoms at these people (nothing surprising there); Republicans cut funding and promote abstinence. (nothing surprising there either; I’ll add here, I’m not opposed to budget cutting given domestic problems, if we’re advocating for more international support in place of solely American money).
On a side, but relevant, note, I think it can be agreed upon that the most common view of many American Catholics is that the Republican Party is comprehensively right on family, marriage, and the “life issues,” while the Democratic Party is more in alignment with the Church’s teachings on “social justice.” I can easily see how a person falls into the temptation of this sort of thinking, but I do think it’s profoundly mistaken.
If we were to follow the just-described view, the Democrats are better positioned to combat the global AIDS epidemic—which is regarded as a “life issue” and one issue among many others (healthcare, war, etc.) that Catholics use to support pro-choice Democratic candidates, namely, a collect set of issues they deem Democrats better equipped in to bring about “social justice.”
I personally sympathize with their view. Nevertheless, a well-formed Catholic conscience begs to differ and would see the profoundly flawed thinking in strategy that is far from life-affirming, thus, no social justice at all. We can’t settle for what the media tells us nor the latest novelties or refashioned dishonest rhetoric of liberal-partisan groups like Catholics United. Additionally, the fact that the Democratic Party is profoundly wrong in strategy doesn’t lead us to just settle with current Republican efforts—much more can be done.
This can’t be a small matter for Catholics. Every 11 seconds someone dies from AIDS. We can’t call ourselves morally coherent and pro-life if we stand by idly as this horrendous cancer fueled by sin kills our brothers and sisters. Are we not our brother’s keeper?
Pray for those with AIDS.
Note: I’m going to stray away from directly tackling the election, Barack Obama, and his horrid abortion stance. I’m all but done with this election (mostly from insanely tense debating in real life, particularly with my family whom I suspect is mostly voting for him because he’s black). I cast my vote for John McCain on Monday, all I can do is hope and pray, and trust in God’s providence. If you have any issues that haven’t been really talked about, tell me, I welcome all ideas. Thanks.