Thursday, March 26, 2009

A New “Benedict Arnold” Heralds Salvation for Africa

By Pete Subkoviak

There is a reason why I consider myself a recovering Catholic – his name is Benedict. Now don’t get me wrong, I think there are many wonderful Catholic organizations, priests and laity doing important work out there. My beef isn’t with the do-gooders, it’s with the leadership.

The growing rift between the realities of a people and the priorities of their leaders is apparent in the Roman Catholic Church. For us in the United States, the disillusion stems from the Church’s war on science and human sexuality, as well as its hidden sexual abuse scandals and misogynistic nature. Oh, and that pesky vow of poverty that few bishops, cardinals and popes feel the need to adhere to. Proselytizing yes, but skimping on gold-plated décor? I think not.

For impoverished nations, the Church’s misguided leadership has larger implications than fewer worshippers in the pews. Take, for instance, the AIDS-ridden African continent where millions of lives are at stake.

Last week while in Cameroon, Pope Benedict XVI claimed that condoms are not only ineffective, but contribute to the spread of HIV. “You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters. "On the contrary, it increases the problem." The pope said a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease. The Catholic Church rejects the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against artificial contraception. The Vatican instead advocates fidelity in marriage and abstinence from premarital sex as key weapons in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Let’s put these statements in context with the current pandemic. Three-quarters of all AIDS deaths worldwide in 2007 were in sub-Saharan Africa, where some 22 million people are infected with HIV — accounting for two-thirds of the world's infections, according to UNAIDS. About 5% of the African population is infected with HIV. In Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe around 15-20% of adults are infected with HIV. In Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, the national adult HIV is between 23-26%. Only one in five HIV-positive Africans has access to the medicines they need; generations are becoming too disabled to work and cannot provide an income for their families, and eventually their children are being orphaned, left alone in a world where the deck is stacked against them.

Pope Benedict favoring religious dogma over the health and wellbeing of his followers, and all of God’s children, is un-Christ-like (and totally not pro-life) as far as I’m concerned. What Catholics need here is a little more honesty and a little less guilt. Saying condoms don’t prevent HIV/AIDS is like professing food doesn’t prevent hunger. When used properly and consistently, condoms are about 98% effective at preventing HIV, other STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Now I’m all for promoting abstinence and fidelity, but tone must take reality into account.

The reality is that most people do not remain abstinent forever. The most recent study on the impact of abstinence-only education from Johns Hopkins researcher Janet Rosenbaum was conclusive. Comparing teens who took a pledge of abstinence with teens of similar backgrounds who did not, she found absolutely no difference in their sexual behavior, or the age at which they began having sex, or the number of their partners. In fact, the only difference was that the group that promised to remain abstinent was significantly less likely to use birth control, especially condoms, when they did have sex.

And many people do not practice monogamy – whether their partners know it or not. In fact, a 2005 US Health Resources and Services Administration report found that 85% of women with HIV in India were infected through heterosexual contact and over 90% reported a single lifetime partner, generally their spouse.

Is it any different in Africa? Well, take the case of Annet Nyakisiki of Uganda. She was a virgin at the time of her marriage, but her husband was not. There is no way to know exactly when he contracted the AIDS virus, but he did. He subsequently passed it on to her, and all four of their children would eventually be born with the disease. Dr. David Serwadda, director of the Institute of Public Health at Makerere University in Kampala says, "Increasingly, people assume that marriage is a safe institution. But there are also extramarital relationships. Married women don't see why they are at risk, yet they are very much at risk." Should individuals really have to suffer the consequences of their partner’s infidelity just to adhere to the Church’s moral standards?

This is precisely why a band of progressive young folks has launched a grassroots campaign known as “Love the One You’re With”, which encourages love, respect and yes, abstinence as a valid CHOICE, while promoting condom education and acceptance right here in Chicago. The bright pink safe-sex kits and promotional materials are meant to highlight the morality of safer sex to the city and nudge local, state, and federal officials to expand condom promotion and distribution as a science-based response to the HIV and STD epidemics in the region.

There are some problems that religion simply cannot solve, just as there are some evils that science cannot remedy. An individual can adhere to their own religious beliefs, but they will never be able to control a partner’s fidelity or HIV-status. We can strive for a utopian society where all are chaste until marriage, but we must deal with reality. In many areas of the world, 25% of the population is HIV-positive. We cannot play Russian roulette with their lives for morality’s sake. That, in and of itself, is immoral.

[Pete Subkoviak is a policy associate at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. He advocates for sound policies related to HIV/AIDS and works to improve the overall health and wellness of the LGBT community.]

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