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In Age of AIDS, Condom Wars Take Deadly Toll

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Vatican's anti-contraception campaign--which has an ally in the White House--has just been blocked by a New York court. In places such as Kenya--where HIV is rampant and the Catholic Church has sponsored condom burnings--the effect is ruinous.

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The Vatican's anti-contraception campaign--which has an ally in the White House--has just been blocked by a New York court. In places such as Kenya--where HIV is rampant and the Catholic Church has sponsored condom burnings--the effect is ruinous.
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Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)--The Bush administration and the Vatican have declared war on contraception and women are among the big losers if these powerful organizations succeed.

So far, there has been at least one recent victory over the anti-birth control blitzkrieg. Last week, the New York State Supreme Court threw out a challenge to the state's Women's Health and Wellness Act, which mandates insurance coverage for allcontraceptives approved by the Food and DrugAdministration.

The plaintiff, Catholic Charities of Albany, claimed the law, which took effect Jan. 1, was unconstitutional and asked to be exempt from providing such coverage to its employees.

The court said no.

In California, a similar law mandating birth-control coverage is being challenged by Catholic Charities of Sacramento. It asks that Catholic institutions statewide not be required to cover contraceptives for some 52,000 employees.


Bishops Decry 'Artificial' Birth Control

Presumably, the impetus for these legal challenges comes from the top of the church; those Roman Catholic bishops who have been mounting a drive against "artificial birth control."

On the other side of the Atlantic, spokespersons for the Vatican have declared (incorrectly) that the AIDS virus can pass through the condom barrier.

At the same time, the Bush administration continues to spend millions of dollars to encourage ineffective "abstinence only" policies. The New York Times notes that one-third of the funds for the president's new AIDS initiative will be spent in this area.

Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta yanked from its Web site information on safe-sex programs--including condoms
--that are proven to work. Critics such as Dr. Jon D. Miller, director for the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, connects such incidents to the White House's desire to please the religious right. Referring to the disappearance of the safe-sex advice, Miller says that the Bush administration is using such actions "to pay off political IOUs to Christian fundamentalist organizations."

Both church and state may have political goals in their condom wars.

In the United States, polls show that most U.S. Catholics ignore the bishops' opposition to birth control. But while anti-contraception proclamations fall on somewhat deaf ears in Europe and the United States, they find better reception in less-developed parts of the world, where church membership is booming. It is a cruel irony that these are the places where the AIDS epidemic is at its worst and where the church's condom opposition can do the greatest harm.


Political Pandering to Christian Right

In the United States, President George W. Bush's political guru Karl Rove has reportedly targeted the nation's evangelicals as the constituency that will give the president a second term. As a result, evangelicals have what is being called unprecedented access to the White House.

One political bone that the administration is throwing to the Christian right: Harassing clinics that do not teach abstinence only.

Representative Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, sent a letter in late October to Health and Human Services Director Tommy Thompson complaining about the selective use of audits against health organizations that do not meet the administration's ideological litmus test.

"The groups that appear to be singled out for repeated audits are those who present evidence-based programs that teach both abstinence and safe sex as a means to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases," he wrote. The programs that don't get hassled, Waxman contended, are those that teach the "abstinence-only programs favored by the Christian right."


Misinformation-and-Misogyny Fronts

Meanwhile, the Vatican is advancing on several Misinformation-and-Misogyny fronts. Papal spokesperson Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo claimed on a recent BBC program that "the AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom."

If this sounds like a bizarre version of counting how many angels can fit on the head of a pin--as church authorities were accused of doing in medieval times--it is also just about as scientific. But then, consider the source. This is not an authority with a proud history of scientific acumen. This is the Vatican, the same outfit that in 1633 tried Galileo for heresy for his insistence that the Earth revolved around the sun.

There have been attempts to stop all this madness. The Washington, D.C., advocacy group Catholics for a Free Choice has begun a campaign to protest blatantly false claims by Catholic cardinals and bishops that condoms do not prevent HIV transmission.

The World Health Organization immediately responded to Trujillo's remarks. "These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people and currently affects at least 42 million." WHO maintains that consistent and correct use of condoms reduces transmission by 90 percent.


Direct Connections to Tragedy

When churches get involved in the war on condoms, tragedy is often the result.

The well respected New Scientist, based in the United Kingdom, reports that in Kenya--where roughly a fifth of the population is HIV positive--the Catholic Church has sponsored public burnings of condoms.

The Washington Post's correspondent Emily Wax reported on a Kenyan evangelical church where the preacher thundered to his congregation that condoms don't work and that abstinence was the only way to prevent AIDS.

According to her article, one of his parishioners was a poor woman who desperately needed cash to feed her four-year-old son, so she agreed to have sex for pay with a local man. She had heard the preacher's words, but she had also heard an opposite view at a local health clinic. She asked the man to wear a condom; he refused and slapped her. She had unprotected sex, and now has AIDS. She believes she will die soon.

It's hard enough getting men in many countries to use condoms even when they think they will work. If they believe condoms are defective, that belief will literally be a death sentence for millions of women.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of "Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News" (Columbia University Press).

For more information:

Women's eNews--"N.Y. Passes Break-Through Women's Health Bill":
http://womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/966

Catholics for a Free Choice:
http://www.cath4choice.org/