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Abstinence and AIDS
April 29, 2006
THE INCREASING availability of AIDS drugs in Africa, where the disease has taken its greatest toll, is welcome. But the infection will continue to spread and outpace the ability of health officials to treat it with the drugs if there are not better efforts at prevention. There is a consensus among organizations fighting the disease in support of an ABC strategy of abstinence, being faithful, and using condoms in certain circumstances, but getting the right balance of the three has led to unproductive disputes.
Two recent developments offer hope that barriers between organizations fighting AIDS might be breaking down. One is the report from the Vatican that a papal specialist on health affairs is preparing a paper on the question of whether the Roman Catholic Church should ease its prohibition on condoms to make an exception in the case of married couples in which one person is infected with the virus and the other is not.
A less publicized event was a meeting organized by Physicians for Human Rights last week in Washington of about 15 evangelical health professionals who have worked on AIDS both in the United States and overseas. The group, which also included a Roman Catholic bishop from South Africa, agreed that a moral approach to dealing with the disease should be based on science and include condoms. Those at the meeting then spoke with members of Congress or their staffers about a more comprehensive approach to prevention. Congress has required that one-third of all US funds for HIV prevention be earmarked solely for abstinence education. In the programs it supports, the United States forbids discussion of condoms in school settings with children younger than 15.
Frustration with that rule and other restrictions on AIDS prevention measures has kept some health organizations in Africa from competing for US funds, leaving the field in many cases to doctrinaire religious groups. That approach to abstinence undoubtedly works for some young people, but it would be helpful if children, especially girls, were hearing a pro-abstinence message that relied not just on appeals to religion or maintaining chastity until marriage but also focused on education, self-esteem, and empowering women in their relations with men. Health organizations that work to communicate this to young people should compete for a role in US programs, even if they cannot advocate condom use.
AIDS presents such a threat to Africa and the world that the US government and non-government health organizations should do whatever it takes to prevent it. The Physicians for Human Rights' meeting of evangelical health professionals and their effort to have a voice in US policy are steps in the right direction.