During the late 1980’s a narrative developed about the Catholic hierarchy, condoms, and HIV; A bunch of old celibate men, through their irrational opposition to any form of birth control, refused to teach the lifesaving truth that condoms prevent the transmission of HIV.
The problem is that the narrative is a lie, start to finish.
To begin, the opposition to the use of birth control is anything but irrational. In 1968 Pope Paul VI clearly articulated the Church’s 2,000 year consistent witness to this in Humanae Vitae, a brief but concise document. In paragraph 17, Pope Paul VI proves prescient:
“17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
“Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”
Certainly Cardinal O’Connor and the Bishops knew all too well the rise in promiscuity following widespread access to the pill in 1968. They knew the CDC data linked here which show the steady rise in STD rates. (Click on “all slides”). Fast-forwarding to today for a moment, Research out of Harvard agrees with the Church that Condoms can make HIV worse in Africa, among other places.
On August 24, 1987 the Times reported “20% of Condom Batches Fail”.
On May 12, 1988 the Times reported that 33 million condoms had been recalled in 1987 with a failure rate of 4/1000. The paper failed to reconcile those numbers with the 20% failure rate reported in August of the previous year. The paper did report that the 4/1000 was an improvement over the 4.8/1000 rate in 1986. These rates for domestic condoms were better than the 6.5/1000 in 1987 and 7.3/1000 in 1986 for imported condoms.
On August 18, 1987 the Times ran a major article entitled “Condoms: Experts Fear False Sense Of Security”. From the Article:
“MANY health officials have begun to voice concern that the campaign to encourage condom use to curb the spread of AIDS may be misunderstood, creating a false sense of security in people whose behavior continues to put them in danger.
“Experts say condoms should minimize the spread of the AIDS virus among the heterosexual population, especially when used with spermicides containing nonoxynol-9, which has been found to kill the virus in test tubes. The experts say this justifies recent campaigns promoting the devices.
“But they stress that it is unknown just how much protection condoms offer. The officials note that condoms have been widely rejected as a method of birth control because they frequently fail, and say the devices may be no better – in fact, may be worse – at curtailing AIDS. They warn that sexually active men and women should not assume that they are protected simply because they use prophylactics.”
The article is filled with notable quotes from experts, all expressing doubts.
It was an interesting time. Because the spermicide nonoxynol-9 was found to have killed HIV at high concentrations in test tubes, it was added as a lubricant and fail-safe against condom tearing or slipping. In recent years we have learned two devastating truths.
1. Nonoxynol-9 in the low concentration on condoms is ineffective against HIV.
2. Nonoxynol-9 in the low concentration on condoms causes ulcerations in the vaginas of women who use them frequently, such as sex workers. This means that N-9 does not kill the virus when condoms tear, and facilitates infection by compromising the vaginal and rectal epithelia.
Finally, a week after the desecration of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral by ACT-UP (reported in Part I), the Times reported that The National Women’s Health Network requested the FDA to remove approval for two new condoms:
“A public-interest health group said today that it had petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw marketing clearance for two new types of condoms because neither had been tested for effectiveness in preventing pregnancy or protecting against disease.
“The National Women’s Health Network, a nonprofit group based in Washington, charged that the Federal agency had erred in approving the devices under a legal provision that waives testing requirements if a new device is substantially like one already approved.”
It was an interesting time. Anti-retroviral medications were being hastened to market. New condoms were being hastened to market all in a desperate attempt to throw the entire arsenal at this virus. But desperate measures can have unintended consequences.
In time, what will be most remembered is the stubborn insistence of so many to having sex outside of a life’s commitment to mutual monogamy with ONE individual in the face of a disease that is so devastating.
Where were the AIDS activists when these reports were being published by the Times? They were busy crafting calumnies against men who read the Times and knew better, celibacy notwithstanding. These lies have become part of the HIV/AIDS lore. How many have gone to their deaths because of their false assurances and convenient scapegoating? Such activism in the name Public Health has been devastating.
It was an interesting time.
Next Wednesday, we’ll take a deeper look at the scientific data about condoms and consider them against the backdrop of STI/STD rates.