UNITED STATES: Religious right's 'condom wars' take deadly toll

Issue 

Caryl Rivers, Boston

Women's eNews (<http://www.womensenews.org/> — The Vatican's anti-contraception campaign — which has an ally in the White House — has been blocked by a New York court. In places such as Kenya — where HIV is rampant and the Catholic Church has sponsored condom burnings — the effect is ruinous.

The US administration and the Vatican have declared war on contraception. Women will be among the big losers if these powerful organisations succeed.

So far, there has been at least one recent victory over the anti-birth control blitzkrieg. On December 1, the New York State Supreme Court threw out a challenge to the state's Women's Health and Wellness Act, which mandates health insurance coverage for all contraceptives approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The plaintiff, Catholic Charities of Albany, claimed the law was unconstitutional and asked to be exempt from providing such coverage to its employees. The court said no.

In California, a similar law mandating birth-control coverage is being challenged by Catholic Charities of Sacramento. It asks that Catholic institutions not be required to cover contraceptives for some 52,000 employees.

These legal challenges come from the top of the church. Catholic bishops are mounting a drive against "artificial birth control".

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, spokespeople for the Vatican have declared that the AIDS virus can pass through condoms.

At the same time, the administration of US President George Bush continues to spend millions of dollars to encourage ineffective "abstinence only" policies. One-third of the funds for the president's new AIDS initiative will be spent in this area.

Meanwhile, the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta have yanked from its web site information on safe-sex programs that are proven to work — including condom use.

Dr Jon Miller, director for the Centre for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, connects such incidents to the White House's desire to please the religious right. Miller says that the Bush administration is using such actions "to pay off political IOUs to Christian fundamentalist organisations".

Both the church and state may have political goals in their condom wars. In the US, polls show that most Catholics ignore the bishops' opposition to birth control. But while anti-contraception proclamations fall on somewhat deaf ears in the US and Europe, they find a better reception in less-developed parts of the world, where church membership is booming. It is a cruel irony that these are the places where the AIDS epidemic is at its worst and where the church's opposition to condom use can do the greatest harm.

President Bush's political guru Karl Rove has reportedly targeted the nation's evangelicals as the constituency that will give the president a second term. As a result, evangelicals have unprecedented access to the White House.

One political bone that the administration is throwing to the Christian right is the harassment of clinics that do not teach abstinence only.

Representative Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, sent a letter in late October to Bush's health and human services director Tommy Thompson complaining about the selective use of audits against health organisations that do not meet the administration's ideological litmus test.

"The groups that appear to be singled out for repeated audits are those that present evidence-based programs that teach both abstinence and safe sex as a means to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases", Waxman wrote. The programs that don't get hassled, Waxman contended, are those that teach the "abstinence-only programs favoured by the Christian right".

Meanwhile, the Vatican is advancing on several fronts. Papal spokesperson Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo claimed on a BBC program last October that "the AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon" and can "easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom".

If this sounds like a bizarre version of counting how many angels can fit on the head of a pin — as church authorities were accused of doing in medieval times — it is also just as scientific. But then, consider the source. This is not an authority with a proud history of scientific acumen. This is the Vatican, the same outfit that in 1633 tried Galileo for heresy for his insistence that the Earth revolves around the sun.

There have been attempts to stop all this madness. The Washington-based advocacy group Catholics for a Free Choice has begun a campaign to protest the blatantly false claims by Catholic cardinals and bishops that condoms do not prevent HIV transmission.

The World Health Organisation immediately responded to Trujillo's remarks: "These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people and currently affects at least 42 million." The WHO maintains that consistent and correct use of condoms reduces transmission by 90%.

When churches get involved in the war on condoms, tragedy is often the result. The well respected New Scientist magazine in October reported that in Kenya — where roughly 20% of the population is HIV-positive — the Catholic Church has sponsored public burnings of condoms.

On May 21, the Washington Post's correspondent Emily Wax reported on a Kenyan evangelical church preacher who thundered to his congregation that condoms don't work and that abstinence was the only way to prevent AIDS.

According to Wax, one of his parishioners was a poor woman who desperately needed cash to feed her four-year-old son, so she agreed to have sex for money with a local man. She had heard the preacher's words, but she had also heard an opposite view at a local health clinic. She asked the man to wear a condom; he refused and slapped her. She had unprotected sex, and now has AIDS. She believes she will die soon.

It's hard enough getting men in many countries to use condoms even when they think they will work. If they believe condoms are defective, that belief will literally be a death sentence for millions of women.

[Copyright 2002 Women's eNews. All rights reserved. For more Women's eNews, visit <http://www.womensenews.org/>. Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of Slick Spins and Fractured Facts: How Cultural Myths Distort the News (Columbia University Press).]

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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