The Vatican is under fire for its recent claims that condoms do not protect people from contracting HIV. The controversy concerns the release of a partial transcript of a BBC documentary slated to air Sunday. In it, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that the HIV virus is small enough to pass through a condom.
According to the cardinal, “There are several doctors on our pontifical council, and these people have studied this matter, and they have also given instruction through various published articles, so we have not seen any denial of this fact at the level of medicine.” Lopez Trujillo dismissed scientific research that contradicts the Vatican view and insists that condoms are effective in preventing the spread of HIV. “They are wrong about that, this is an easily recognizable fact,” he said, holding firm to the Roman Catholic position that birth control is unnatural and immoral and that abstinence is the only way to avoid AIDS.
But a host of medical and religious organizations say otherwise, among them the World Health Organization, the South African Council of Churches, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the United Nations Health Agency.
“When you use a condom badly so that it breaks or slips or it is past its ‘use-by date,’ it is not very effective,” WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib told the Associated Press. “Two years ago, in June 2001, there was a big study that reviewed all the literature on male condoms. This study showed that condoms are 90 percent effective against HIV/AIDS infection, and the other 10 percent is when they were used wrongly.
“It is quite dangerous to claim the contrary when you realize that today we are facing an epidemic which has already killed 20 million people and 42 million people are infected today,” she said.
Dr. Thomas Quinn, an HIV expert with the IDSA, pointed out that several scientific studies show that HIV can not pass through condoms. “The mechanical barrier is 100 percent except when there are tears or breaks, so [the Vatican is] absolutely incorrect,” he said. “They are going to need to come up with scientific proof to prove that statement wrong because there is a multitude of publications that show that the virus cannot pass through the latex of the condom.”
The outrage generated by the cardinal’s statements is also coming from regular folks. Today’s Guardian (UK) includes a couple of letters from people who had to speak out, including one man who calls the Vatican view “tantamount to manslaughter” and a physician who insists condoms are the reason she is alive and healthy today:
I am HIV-negative and was married to an HIV-positive husband for eight years, till he died. We were both physicians. Before relying on condoms we looked very carefully at the medical literature about safety. My life depended on getting it right. There is no doubt (evidence from meta-analysis, research trials and the success of Thailand’s condom campaign, and my own experience) that, if used properly, condoms do protect. The WHO is right in condemning the Vatican’s dangerous claims. Although condoms are only one aspect of preventing this appalling pandemic, spreading falsehood condemns many young people to dreadful suffering and death.
Father Joe Mdhlela, an Anglican priest representing the South African Council of Churches, which represents all South Africa’s mainstream churches (including the RCC), said he is “shocked and disgusted” by the Vatican’s stance. “There is undisputed medical evidence that condoms can help save lives,” he told South Africa’s Independent Online. “HIV/AIDS is a pandemic, and as the SACC, our belief is do what is possible to save lives and limit the spread of the disease.” Mdhelela added that Catholic leadership is not taking reality into consideration.
Indeed: AIDS is ruining the lives of people — particularly those who are poor — in some of the countries worst hit by the disease. The Vatican puts these lives at even greater risk with its irresponsible statements. Granted, abstinence is a powerful weapon in the fight against HIV and AIDS — but it is not the only one. Limiting Catholics to one tool (one arguably tougher to employ than a condom) is beyond foolhardy: The Roman Catholic Church, in its legalistic quest to keep its faithful obedient to denominational rules, is being heartless, reckless, and stupid.
If you have access to British telly, I recommend that you check out the BBC documentary “Panorama — Sex and the Holy City” and see for yourself what the cardinal has to say on the subject. And stay safe.
UPDATE: Loz at Blah Blah Flowers saw the documentary and files this report.