World Aids Day: A Need for Truly Human Solutions

Medical news outlets and traditional news outlets have been gradually increasing their coverage of the ongoing AIDS crisis, leading up to today, which has become known as “World AIDS Day.” Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Benin, Africa drew many to recall his 2009 trip to the continent. It was quite a furor that erupted when, during an in-flight interview, Pope Benedict stated that the promotion of condoms exacerbates the problem of AIDS in Africa, and that a more human vision of sexuality was necessary.

The public outcry to his words was swift and seemingly from every corner. The New York Times wrote that the Holy Father “deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus.” The development minister of the Netherlands, Bert Koenders, echoed these thoughts, saying, “It is extremely harmful and very serious that this pope is forbidding people from protecting themselves.” The Washington Post proclaimed, “Pope Benedict is wrong . . . the evidence says so.” Spain shipped one million condoms to Africa, and a Dutch company made “Pope Condoms” as a display of protest. It was claimed by experts the world over that Pope Benedict was misrepresenting science, harming Africans, and therefore they called on him to retract his ideologically driven statements. How could the Pope be so wrong?

To the chagrin of the organizations referred to by many as the “AIDS Establishment” (WHO, UNAIDS, USAID etc), there were a few experts who came out in support of Pope Benedict’s statement – in some cases, these were noted liberals who support abortion and contraception. Most notable is Edward C. Green, then director of Harvard University’s “AIDS Prevention Research Project.” He and others knew that in Africa, condoms have not had a positive impact on the AIDS epidemic. Because of the ideological commitment to condom use on the part of the AIDS establishment, however, more effective methods have been ignored and condoms constantly pushed on the African people. The AIDS Establishment favors an approach which includes condoms, counseling, and testing rather than encouraging primary behavioral changes such as fidelity to one’s spouse and abstinence before marriage.

In his most recent trip to Africa, Pope Benedict did not explicitly discuss the issue of condoms. On the other hand, as he did in Light of the World, Pope Benedict emphasized that the fullest and most dignified response to the AIDS crisis is a human response that emphasizes moral behavior:

The problem of AIDS, in particular, clearly calls for a medical and pharmaceutical response. This is not enough, however: the problem goes deeper. Above all, it is an ethical problem. The change of behavior that it requires – for example, sexual abstinence, rejection of sexual promiscuity, fidelity within marriage – ultimately involves the question of integral development, which demands a global approach and a global response from the Church. For if it is to be effective, the prevention of AIDS must be based on a sex education that is itself grounded in an anthropology anchored in the natural law and enlightened by the word of God and the Church’s teaching. (Africae munus n. 72)

Unfortunately, when it comes to the lives of Africans, the Western AIDS Establishment has taken a fatalistic approach. The assumption is that sexual behavior cannot change; such a change is simply unrealistic. Time and again, however, the data reveals that when collaborative efforts by religious, political, and medical leaders are aimed at abstinence and fidelity, HIV infection rates drop significantly. Uganda was the great example of this success until recently when condom promotion became increasingly dominant following pressure from the West. Prior to this recent change in approach, Doctor Green notes that Uganda cut its AIDS rate by two-thirds. On the other hand, the rest of Africa – take Botswana which after strongly promoting condoms has one-fifth of its citizens infected – has shown that when condom use (risk reduction) is emphasized, infection rates increase.

In his new book, Broken Promises: How the AIDS establishment Has Betrayed the Developing World, Edward C. Green notes:

In fact, no one has ever proved any positive impact on national or population-wide HIV infection rates on AIDS in Africa from standard, Western-style interventions. These include not just condom promotion but treatment of sexually transmitted infections, voluntary counseling and testing, diaphragm use, microbicides, “safer sex” counseling, vaccines, and income generation.

One explanation of this is that condom promotion (and other interventions that don’t involve changing the primary risky behavior) has a tendency to lull people into a false sense of security, encouraging them to engage more often in risky sexual behavior. While use of a condom makes a particular sexual act less likely to transmit HIV, risky behavior is chosen more often, leading to an overall increase of risk and a higher rate of infection in the general populace. As Matthew Hanley and Jokin de Irala noted in their book Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, “Therefore, from a purely pragmatic point of view, there remain large and serious concerns about the practical impact and efficacy of risk reduction strategies.”

Pope Benedict’s plea to turn away from technical solutions, and turn toward authentically human solutions that recognize the dignity of the human person and respect the sexual act and marriage is supported by the scientific evidence as noted by Dr. Green in Broken Promises: “Condom use doesn’t work here, for important reasons, yet most ‘experts’ have yet to acknowledge this research and simply assume that non-condom programs lead to mass deaths. As a result, we have seen mass deaths in Africans, unnecessarily and for too long.”

Saddened by this unnecessary loss of millions of lives, Pope Benedict emphasized a medically and morally sound solution during his controversial interview back in 2009:

The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practice self-denial, to be alongside the suffering. These are the factors that help and that lead to real progress.

As we mark this somber occasion of World AIDS Day, it is helpful to recall that true development always follows the moral law. True development respects the inherent dignity of the person and recognizes that each person is capable of choosing behavior that is good for him. Leaders – political, scientific, and religious – are called to uphold the law that is written on the heart of every man and every woman. Only by doing the good and avoiding evil can the true good of persons and societies be accomplished.

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