When President Bush gave a speech on AIDS in Philadelphia on June 23, the New York Times got all moist because he mentioned the word “condoms” just once in his speech. “Bush Backs Condom Use to Prevent Spread of AIDS,” blared the Times headline on the story, signed by David Sanger and Donald McNeil Jr.
Here’s what Bush actually said: “We can learn from the experiences of other countries when it comes to a good program to prevent the spread of AIDS, like the nation of Uganda. They’ve started what they call the ABC approach to prevention of this deadly disease. That stands for Abstain, Be faithful in marriage, and, when appropriate, use Condoms.”
Well, if Messrs. Sanger, McNeil, and their editors knew anything about Administration AIDS policy–or had bothered to find out–they might have mentioned the censorious new anti-condom guidelines issued only the week before the speech, on June 16, by Bush’s Centers for Disease Control, which reveal as a sham the election-year rhetoric mouthed by Bush in Philadelphia.
The new CDC regulations, published in the Federal Register, are mandatory for any AIDS-fighting organization that receives federal money for HIV prevention, and they finish the job of gutting effective, disease-preventing safe-sex education that has been a goal of the Bush Administration since it took office. Far from trying to “learn” from the Ugandans, the regs demand that any sex-ed “content” include information on the “lack of effectiveness of condom use.” In other words, the Bush Administration wants AIDS-fighting organizations to tell people: Condoms don’t work. At the same time, the regs mandate the teaching of the failed policy of abstinence from sex until (heterosexual) marriage.
The Times article didn’t even mention these new CDC censorship guidelines, or include any comment on Bush’s speech in light of them from Administration critics.They even failed to notice the large and noisy ACT-UP demonstration outside the speech. Dissent wouldn’t have been hard to find: When asked about the CDC regs, Representative Barney Frank told The Nation that “one has to reach back to Stalin and Lysenko to find an ideological distortion of science this complete.” And Representative Henry Waxman called the CDC guidelines “shameful,” and only the latest anti-condom move by an Administration whose policies have been “overwhelmingly suppressing and distorting science” for political purposes (as a sop to the Christian right). (One example: the US coalition with Iraq and Iran to stop the UN from teaching young people about condoms–see Doug Ireland, “U.S. and Evil Axis: Allies for Abstinence,” The Nation, May 16, 2002.)
The CDC is the federal government’s single funder of HIV-prevention work; its current head, Julie Gerberding, is a Bush appointee, named by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. The new CDC regulations meticulously define the “content” they censor as including “pamphlets, brochures, fliers, curricula,” “audiovisual materials” and “pictorials (for example, posters and similar educational materials using photographs, slides, drawings or paintings),” as well as “advertising” and web-based info. They not only mandate teaching about condoms’ purported “lack of effectiveness,” they require all such “content” to eliminate anything even vaguely “sexually suggestive” or that might be interpreted as “obscene.” That would, for example, forbid teaching how to use a condom correctly by putting it on a dildo–or even on a cucumber.
And who gets to decide what sex-ed materials are “suggestive” or “obscene”? Under the new CDC regulations, decisions on which AIDS-prevention educational materials actually work will be taken away from those on the frontlines of combat against the epidemic and handed over to political appointees. This is done by requiring that Policy Review Panels, which each group engaged in HIV prevention must have, can no longer be appointed by the group–but must instead be named by state and local health departments. And those panels must then take a vote on every single flier or brochure or other “content” before they are issued. This creates a new layer of heavy-handed bureaucracy to hamstring HIV prevention ed–one that will be felt most harshly in the majority of states in which Republicans control the statehouses. Most of them have handed over control of health departments to appointees acceptable to cultural conservatives and the Christian right.
In the absence of an AIDS-preventing vaccine, condoms are recognized by every competent scientific body as the single most important way in which people can prevent getting or spreading HIV. Condom effectiveness in doing so, according to a raft of studies, is rated at 98 percent or better
“It’s very clear that the mistaken impression the President supports public health science which recommends condom use was dispelled totally by the new CDC regs,” says James Wagoner, executive director of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based coalition of youth service groups and the country’s leading exponent and provider of safe-sex education, calling the regulations “another installment of this Administration’s anti-condom campaign over the last three years–which says that if the science doesn’t fit our ideology, we’ll change the science.”
Wagoner contrasts the Bush war on the condom with its attitude toward seatbelts. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is constantly telling Americans, ‘Use Seatbelts!’ It’s all over their website. But the American College of Emergency Physicians concluded in a study that seatbelts fail to protect lives 55 percent of the time, and fail to protect health 45 percent of the time. For the Administration to engage in its constant drumbeat that condoms–which are not 100 percent effective for all sexually transmitted diseases but are nearly so for preventing AIDS–are ‘ineffective’ in HIV prevention, while promoting seatbelts as ‘effective,’ shows that the CDC’s anti-condom requirements are all about politics, not science.” And, says Mark McLaurin, HIV-prevention director for New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, “The President’s faint nod to condoms in his speech is particularly galling in light of his CDC’s proposal to tie the hands of prevention providers.”
Little will be left of sex ed after the CDC regs’ effects are felt except the failed policy of abstinence-only–which actually increases unsafe sex. A study by Columbia University department of sociology chairman Peter Bearman followed the lives of 12,000 adolescents from 12 to 18 years old over a five-year period. Released in March, and partially funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the study found that while 59 percent of teenage males who did not pledge abstinence used a condom during sex, only 40 percent of abstinence-pledging boys used a condom. Bearman told the New York Times that telling teens “to ‘just say no’ without understanding risk or how to protect oneself from risk turns out to create greater risk” of HIV and other STDs.
There’s only one word to describe the effect of the new CDC guidelines: lethal. And Bush’s campaign boilerplate on AIDS in Philadelphia was “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” bilge. Too bad the Times didn’t notice.
For a complete dissection of Bush’s policies in this area since he took office, see the new report on “Global Implications of US Domestic and International Policies on Sexuality.