Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Open season on the Pope

The National Post
By Rory Leishman

It seems to be open season on Pope Benedict XVI in the secular media. Last week, newspapers around the world mocked him for suggesting during a discussion of AIDS with reporters: "You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem."

Then, on Saturday, Agence France-Presse sensationally reported: "Pope Benedict used a nationally televised speech in Angola yesterday to reiterate the Roman Catholic Church's ban on abortion, even to save a mother's life."

According to the official Vatican text of the Pope's address, he made only one reference to abortion, stating: "How bitter the irony of those who promote abortion as a form of 'maternal' health care! How disconcerting the claim that the termination of life is a matter of reproductive health (cf. Maputo Protocol, art. 14)!"

On Sunday, Agence France-Presse reported that Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi "has clarified" the Pope's remarks on abortion, stating that the Church has always taught that "indirect" abortion is permissible if necessary to save the life of the mother. Lombardi added: "What the Pope said is that the concept of maternal health cannot be used to justify abortions as a means of limiting births."

Quite so. It is generally agreed among pro-lifers -- Catholic, Protestant and secular -- that induced abortion is a grievous wrong that can never be justified except if necessary to save the life of the mother.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the Pope's remark about condoms and AIDS continues. In an editorial, "The Pope on Condoms and Aids" (March 17), The New York Times contended: "Pope Benedict XVI has every right to express his opposition to the use of condoms on moral grounds, in accordance with the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church. But he deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus."

In support of this argument, the Times editorial stated: "From an individual’s point of view, condoms work very well in preventing transmission of the AIDS virus from infected to uninfected people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites 'comprehensive and conclusive' evidence that latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are 'highly effective' in preventing heterosexual transmission of the virus that causes AIDS."

This statement is essentially misleading. Despite several decades of "safer-sex" propaganda, the great majority of sexually active persons do not use condoms "consistently and correctly." In an article published in The British Medical Journal (26 January 2008), Dr. Stephen Genuis, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Alberta, observed: "In theory, condoms offer some protection against sexually transmitted infection; practically, however, epidemiological research repeatedly shows that condom familiarity and risk awareness do not result in sustained safer sex choices in real life. Only a minority of people engaging in risky sexual behaviour use condoms consistently. A recent study found that ... [e]ven among stable, adult couples who were HIV discordant and received extensive ongoing counseling about HIV risk and condom use, only 48.4% used condoms consistently."

What about Africa, in particular? Have the millions of free condoms that Western countries have distributed on this continent over the past several decades not at least served to reduce the scourge of AIDS among Africans?

Alas, no. Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, is one of the leading authorities on AIDS. In an illuminating article "Aids and the Churches: Getting the Story Right," First Things (April 2008), he wrote: "Consider this fact: In every African country in which HIV infections have declined, this decline has been associated with a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sex partner over the course of a year -— which is exactly what fidelity programs promote. The same association with HIV decline cannot be said for condom use, coverage of HIV testing, treatment for curable sexually transmitted infections, provision of antiretroviral drugs, or any other intervention or behavior."

Even The New York Times has grasped that condoms are not a cure-all for the AIDS epidemic. In its editorial chiding the Pope, the paper conceded: "The best way to avoid transmission of the virus is to abstain from sexual intercourse or have a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected person."

Pope Benedict could not have said it any better.

NB: Rory Leishman is a freelance columnist and member of St. George's Anglican Church in London, Ontario.

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