There are many things to be said against condoms, and most people reading this have probably said them all. But at least they work. Not perfectly–they slip, they break, they require more forethought and finesse and cooperation and trust than is easy to bring to sex every single time, and, a major drawback in this fallen world, they place women’s safety in the hands of men. But for birth control they are a whole lot better than the rhythm method or prayer or nothing, and for protection from sexually transmitted diseases they are all we have. This is not exactly a controversial statement; people have been using condoms as a barrier against disease as long as rubber has been around (indeed, before–as readers of James Boswell’s journals know). You could ask a thousand doctors–ten thousand doctors–before you’d find one who said, Condoms? Don’t bother.
But what do doctors know? Or the Centers for Disease Control, or the World Health Organization, or the American Foundation for AIDS Research (Amfar)? These days, the experts on condoms are politicians, preachers and priests, and the word from above is: Condoms don’t work. That is what students are being taught in the abstinence-only sex ed favored by the religious right and funded by the Bush Administration–$117 million of your annual tax dollars at work. The theory is that even mentioning condoms, much less admitting that they dramatically reduce the chances of pregnancy or HIV infection, sends a “mixed message” about the value of total abstinence until marriage. How absurd–it’s like saying that seat belts send a mixed message about the speed limit or vitamin pills send a mixed message about vegetables. Anti-condom propaganda can backfire, too: True, some kids may be scared away from sex although probably not until marriage; others, though, hear only a reason to throw caution to the winds. According to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report on abstinence-only sex ed in Texas, a condoms-don’t-work ad campaign led sexually active teens to have unprotected sex: “My boyfriend says they don’t work. He heard it on the radio.” Why is the Bush Administration giving horny teenage boys an excuse to be sexually selfish? You might as well have high school teachers telling them using a condom during sex is like taking a shower in a raincoat.
Now it seems the Vatican is joining fundamentalist Protestants to spread the word against condoms around the globe. “To talk of condoms as ‘safe sex’ is a form of Russian roulette,” said Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican’s office on the family. On the BBC Panorama program “Sex and the Holy City,” Lopez Trujillo explained, “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.” That latex has holes or pores through which HIV (or sperm) can pass is a total canard. A National Institutes of Health panel that included anti-condom advocates examined the effectiveness of condoms from just about every perspective, including strength and porosity; according to its report, released in July 2001, latex condoms are impermeable to even the smallest pathogen. Among STDs, HIV is actually the one condoms work best against. “We’re all a bit stunned by Lopez Trujillo’s lack of respect for scientific consensus,” Dr. Judith Auerbach of Amfar, who sat on the NIH panel, told me. “Where do his numbers come from?” Is Lopez Trujillo, who even suggests putting warnings on condoms like those on cigarettes, a loose cannon such as can be found in even the best regulated bureaucracies? According to “Sex and the Holy City,” in Africa, where HIV infects millions–20 percent in Kenya, 40 percent in Botswana, 34 percent in Zimbabwe–Catholic clergy, who oppose condoms as they do all contraception, are actively promoting the myth that condoms don’t prevent transmission of the virus and may even spread it. The Guardian quotes the archbishop of Nairobi, Raphael Ndingi Nzeki, as saying: “AIDS…has grown so fast because of the availability of condoms.” Thus is a decade of painstaking work to mainstream and normalize condom use undone by the conscious promotion of an urban legend.
When the Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Shirin Ebadi, the first ever to a Muslim woman, an Iranian and a crusader for women’s rights, not everyone was thrilled. What about Pope John Paul II, now celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election, and possibly near death? “This…was his year,” wrote David Brooks in his New York Times column, a hymn of praise for the Pope as the defender of “the whole and the indivisible dignity of each person.” A few pages over, Peter Steinfels said much the same in his religion column: “Is there any other leader who has so reshaped the political world for the better and done it peacefully?” More knowledgeable people than I can debate how much credit the Pope should get for the fall of Communism–I always thought it was Ronald Reagan with an unintentional assist from Gorbachev plus the internal collapse of the system itself. With the crucial exception of Poland, the countries in the old Soviet bloc aren’t even Roman Catholic, or are so only partially. Whatever his contribution to that historic set of events, though, the Pope is on the wrong side of history now. Women’s equality, sexual rights for all, the struggle of the individual against authoritarian religion and of course the global AIDS epidemic–the Pope has been a disaster on all these crucial issues of our new century. It’s all very well for David Brooks to mock those who critique the Pope for his “unfashionable views on abortion,” as if 78,000 women a year dying in illegal procedures around the world was just something to chat about over brie and chablis. But add it up: a priesthood as male as the Kuwaiti electorate–even altar girls may be banned soon, according to one recent news story–no divorce, no abortion, no contraception, no condom use even within a faithful marriage to prevent a deadly infection.
It’s bad enough to argue that condoms are against God’s will while millions die. But to maintain, falsely, that they are ineffective in order to discourage their use is truly immoral. If not insane.