the pope needs a fact check

March 19, 2009

Sometimes you hear a person who was given immense authority and is regarded as a very deep and profound thinker say something so shockingly backwards, you start to wonder in what world he’s living. Case in point, Pope Benedict XVI who says that using condoms to stem the tide of HIV and AIDS infections in Africa is actually just making things worse and that abstinence- only education is the only way to prevent new cases of these devastating diseases. Isn’t that the reverse of what a fair bit of data on the subject says?

sex ed anti-poster

One of the primary reasons why the Pope opposes condoms is because they’re used as a form of birth control and that it somehow goes against the Biblical instructions to go be fruitful and multiply. There’s no ban on birth control in the Bible and since we already dominate this planet, it seems that we fulfilled God’s instructions. But the Church takes a much more literal view and blames the problems that come from unsafe sex practices and overpopulation on divorce and prostitution as well as our general immorality. It’s basically a blame-the-victim mentality. Their core message is that if humans stopped being so evil and did what the Church tells them, there would be less AIDS. And that begs the question of how condoms make anything worse.

A study conducted in 1997 analyzed a wide number of HIV transmission studies and found that with good education and consistent use, condoms can lower the risk of infection by up to 95%. Subsequent reviews of the obtained results and similar studies by the NIH and the CDC confirm the work of Steven Pinkerton and Paul Abramson who analyzed past meta-studies and adjusted them to track just how effective latex condoms are in preventing HIV infection with proper and consistent usage. However, the Pope and his spokespeople ignore this data, allege that the use of condoms encourages promiscuity, and say that this drives up the risk of infection since the world population is having sex. This is a strange allegation to make since the Church is not just encouraging people to have more sex, it urges them not to use tools which can protect them.

In Benedict’s world though, people would just abstain from sex until they’re married and when they finally find a spouse, they just have sex with him or her. Problem solved, right? Actually, it really isn’t. A study by Dr. Janet Rosenbaum meant to evaluate abstinence-only programs like the ones the Pope claimed are the only failsafe way to prevent HIV infection not only fail in their intended mission, they actually make things a lot worse by denying the kids enrolled in them a proper education they could use to significantly lower the risks of spreading STIs. The specific programs she studied were virginity pledges in which kids promise to abstain from sex before marriage and the results speak for themselves.

Five years after making the pledge, some 82% of the pledgers denied having ever promising to abstain form sex and had only one less partner than non-pledgers. Not a good start, is it? Even worse, they’re significantly less likely to use condoms or any other form of birth control since they’re taught to view them as ineffective under curriculums which aren’t required to have any degree of scientific accuracy more than 90% of the time. And those virginity pledges are being developed and conducted by religious organizations so we really can’t expect to have realistic approaches to human sexuality and reproduction. Most organizations which promote virginity pledges have the same mentality as the Pope. But the reality is that humans will have sex since it’s hotwired into them and no matter what we do, we can’t make them stop.

I can understand that Ratzinger has a very fervent belief in what he preaches and that if we were all living in a perfect world and only had one sex partner in our entire lives, we could reduce the risks of STIs, unwanted pregnancies and all sorts of psychosexual problems. However, I’m also well aware that we don’t live in a perfect world and the doctrine of subduing human libidos with threats of Hell or divine punishments in the form of disease doesn’t work. I’ve seen quite a few abstinence-only devotees argue that the short fallings of their programs are just proof that the world needs more abstinence-only education which is essentially saying that if something just isn’t working, we need to keep doing it until it does.

But this view, like the Pope’s comments, are a huge hazard to public health and the very people they’re trying to protect as shown by the numerous studies on the subject. An abstinence-only curriculum coupled with blame-the-victim rhetoric isn’t just ineffective. It’s dangerous.

See: Rosenbaum, J. (2009). Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers PEDIATRICS, 123 (1) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2008-0407

Pinkerton, S. (1997). Effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission Social Science & Medicine, 44 (9), 1303-1312 DOI: 10.1016/S0277-9536(96)00258-4

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  • D Russell

    Stupid, stupid, stupid!

    Why is it that these mostly religious groups and other blinder-impaired morons completely ignore the plethora of data that PROVES that the mostly-English-speaking mantra of abstinence-only sex “education” (and, I use that word lightly) DOES NOT WORK?! Worse, abstinence-only education actually CAUSES the problems it was intended to correct.

    All it takes is a cursory review of the comparisons of the teen-pregnancy rate of the US (where “abstinence-only” is practically government-mandated) to that of the more liberally-sex-educated Europeans to realized that there is a direct correlation between what, when, and how sexuality is taught and the final outcome.

    People — especially teens — will have sex regardless of (or in spite of) whether they’ve been told, “Don’t do it!” The only effective way to affect when and how they have sex is to educate them early and comprehensively so that they can make informed decisions on their own.

    When will we Americans stop ignoring the real world by covering our eyes with pages from the Bible? When will we realize the education is not advocacy and that hiding facts has never helped anyone in the long run.