Alexander C. Sanger


(WOMENSENEWS)–Defying logic, common sense and a couple of thousand years of history, not to mention science, the U.S. government’s population policy has been reduced to this: The only acceptable sexual activity is between a married couple for purposes of procreation and, if you disagree with this, you aren’t allowed to talk about it.

The latest inanity from the Bush administration came July 20 in the form of a report from the National Institutes of Health on the effectiveness of condom use in preventing infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The NIH panel concluded that the published literature about the spread of diseases was inadequate to definitively answer the question of whether latex condoms are effective in preventing pregnancies and the transmission of diseases.

When a leading federal public health official challenged the institute’s phlegmatic tone, the far right quickly got in gear and demanded the official’s resignation. These events could be ignored except that the far right often serves as the stalking horse for this administration’s viewpoints.

Few Predicted Bush Would Oppose Family Planning

In fact, this debate reflects an ominous pattern, beginning with the reinstatement last January of the Global Gag Rule, that has been emerging from the Bush administration. Another was the administration’s foot-dragging in approving several states’ requests to provide low-income families with contraceptive services. Although the administration announced on Monday that it would approve New York’s request, this was only after intense lobbying pressure from Democrats and family planning advocates.

While many observers predicted that this administration would oppose abortion rights, few predicted that they would dare oppose family planning.

Yet, that is what appears to be happening.

The National Institutes of Health panel did find that there was strong evidence for the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission and in reducing the risk of gonorrhea transmission. The panel also conceded that there was evidence of effectiveness for other diseases transmitted by genital secretions, chlamydia, for example, but not for genital ulcer diseases–genital herpes or syphilis. Concluding that the inadequacy of scientific studies should not be interpreted as proof of the inadequacy of the condom in reducing the risk of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, the panel called for more research to settle the issue.

Right Wing Demands Health Official Be Fired

Retired U.S. Rep. Thomas Coburn, R-Okla., who had requested the study, interpreted this to mean that “the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote an unsubstantiated claim that promiscuity can be safe.”

The Centers for Disease Control, another federal agency, was alarmed by the tone of the institute’s report and issued a separate statement repeating its public health message that latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.

This statement brought out the ire of the right wing. Coburn, U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., and their ultra-conservative allies–the Physicians Consortium, the Catholic Medical Association and the Christian Medical Association–demanded the resignation of CDC Director Jeffrey Koplan and accused the agency of promoting condom use and thereby misleading the public into thinking that there was such a thing as safe sex. U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson issued a statement saying that he would not fire Koplan. For now.

The Bush administration professes that all it wants is parity between its abstinence-only approach and family planning. We have always said that abstinence is the best way to prevent disease and pregnancy.

However, in the real world, as opposed to the political fantasy world of Washington, D.C., this approach is not feasible for most of humanity. People are sexually active with multiple partners, before, during and after marriage. They are entitled to have accurate information on how best to stay healthy when they are sexually active. The institute’s report, as interpreted by Congressman Coburn, and the Bush administration’s policies thus far fail to recognize this basic right and human nature.

More dangerously, it could lead to a public health disaster if the public gets the message that our government thinks that condoms don’t work. Surely this is a time to let scientists do their work. Let’s keep the politicians out of it.

Alexander C. Sanger is the chair of the International Planned Parenthood Council of International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region Inc. (IPPF/WHR). Mr. Sanger is the grandson of Margaret Sanger, the founder of the birth control movement in the United States and a founder of the IPPF. He is currently writing a book about the future of the pro-choice movement.