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Denunciation of condoms not a solution

Letter to the Editor | Monday, March 23, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in Cameroon on March 17 marked his first pilgrimage to Africa as Pontiff. Traditionally reticent on the issue of contraception, His Holiness stated in his first statement on the issue that condoms were not the answer to Africa’s fight against the AIDS epidemic. The reason? That condoms only “increase[d] the problem” and only a “responsible and moral attitude toward sex” would help fight the disease. With all due respect to His Holiness, he is simply incorrect.

As an empirical matter, condoms have proven to be the single most effective (and cost-effective) preventative measure for HIV. Moreover, I take issue with the Pope’s premise that the AIDS epidemic is solely the result of immoral sexual practices. Undoubtedly certain sexual practices (such as having multiple partners) substantially contribute to the problem. (Of course, the multiple-partner phenomenon is hardly unique to Africa, as anyone who has lived in a guy’s dorm can attest.)

I have no doubt that greater monogamous sexual practices would be a vital part of slowing HIV transmission. But even those sub-Saharan Africans who are “morally responsible” with sex are not immune from HIV. Over 22 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa live with HIV; in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, more than one in five adults are infected. Yet due to the lack of testing facilities and the prohibitively expensive cost of general HIV testing, it is estimated that fewer than ten percent of adults in sub-Saharan Africa have taken an HIV test within the last 12 months. Simply put, it is entirely possible that two people could fall in love, marry, be completely monogamous and still transmit HIV because one of them unwittingly (and unbeknownst to the other) contracted the virus in his or her past. And bear in mind that the one initially carrying HIV need not have engaged in “irresponsible sex” to contract the virus. Many children are born with HIV or contract it through breastfeeding. Other people unwittingly contract HIV through exchange of blood or reuse of dirty instruments or needles in underfunded medical clinics. But even if the one initially carrying the virus had engaged in “irresponsible sex,” his or her partner surely did not act in a sexually irresponsible manner.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI stated in “Humanae Vitae” that the use of contraceptives was intrinsically evil. It is worth noting that this position represented the underwhelming minority viewpoint of the 72-member commission begun under Pope John XXIII to study the issue: Only four theologian priests, one cardinal and two bishops dissented from the majority report that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with contraception. But credibility as a matter of doctrine aside, “Humanae Vitae’s” credibility as a matter of moral absolutism is, in my view, severely compromised. In the Church’s view, it is morally repugnant to separate the conjugal and procreative elements of sex through using contraception. I confess I find this admonition rather odd, given that the Catechism explicitly approves a means of doing just that through “birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods” (2370).

In any event, I cannot fathom how the Church can justify condemning couples – even married, monogamous ones – to inevitable death in order to prevent something that is allowed by the Catechism in a different form. In my view, the Church’s condemnation of contraception would be more appropriately framed as the prohibition of bearing false witness, i.e., “misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others” (2464). Bearing false witness may be wrong as a general rule, but sometimes it would be moral to prevent a far greater evil. For example, I doubt that fishermen who ferried Jewish people away from Nazi Germany acted immorally by lying to the S.S. about whether they had anyone on board. Similarly, while contraception may be wrong as a general rule, I contend that a married couple using a condom to prevent a possible spread of HIV – especially during an infertile period, where procreation is not possible anyway – does not commit an “evil” act. While I have great respect for Pope Benedict’s intellect, I believe this issue should not be relegated to pontifical fiat. Another 1.3 million Africans were infected with HIV last year. We need a solution to this epidemic. And fast.

Brodie Butland


class of 2005

March 17