The Pope's Opposition to Condoms Hurts US Policy

This morning, as the pope traveled to Africa, he issued his first explicit statement opposing condom use. In an interview on the papal plane to Cameroon, the pope acknowledged the HIV/AIDS crisis but claimed that the distribution of condoms would not resolve the problem. In fact, he said, condom use "increases the problem."

This is not a new position, but it is worth noting that the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to condoms has had serious implications for domestic US policy.

The vast majority of Catholics in the United States stopped listening to the church about birth control in 1968, when Pope Paul VI overturned the recommendations of a hand-picked commission and retained the ban on contraception. Now, Catholics use contraception at the same rate as do non-Catholics, with some 97 percent of sexually active Catholic women having used a method banned by the hierarchy. In addition, according to a poll commissioned by Catholics for Choice, which interviewed Catholics in Ghana, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines and the United States, support for condom use among Catholics is overwhelming. When asked if "using condoms is prolife because it helps save lives by preventing the spread of AIDS," 90% of Catholics in Mexico, 86% in Ireland, 79% in the US, 77% in the Philippines and 59% in Ghana agreed. Unfortunately, the Catholic hierarchy's position holds the most sway in the countries least able to deal economically and medically with the disease. The full results of the poll are available at http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/documents/BRSPOLLFINAL1.pdf.

But, having failed to convince Catholics against the use of condoms and contraception, the Catholic hierarchy seeks to impose its views via lobbying at the UN and in capital cities around the world.

Just last year, reproductive rights advocates and the majority of Catholics were hugely disappointed with the influence the Catholics bishops had in gutting practical, life-saving programs during the drafting of the Lantos/Hyde HIV/AIDS Global Leadership Act, later known as PEPFAR—the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Widely described as one of President Bush’s most enduring legacies, the reality is that while the Act increased funding overall, it also:

* decoupled vital family planning services that can prevent mother-child transmission of HIV/AIDS;
* retained the anti-prostitution pledge, further marginalizing an extremely at-risk group;  and
* removed the current abstinence-only funding, but in its place imposed a complex formula that requires “balanced funding” for Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms (ABC) programs, rather than allowing experienced agencies to decide how best to spend the funds depending on local circumstances.

Obviously, nobody believes that condoms alone will solve the HIV crisis. But they are a critical part of the campaign to reduce the impact of the virus. Medical experts agree that the condom is a life-saving device: it is highly effective in preventing HIV transmission if used correctly and consistently, and is the best current method of HIV prevention for those who are sexually active and at risk. A review from the US National Institutes for Health concluded that condoms are protective against HIV infection, reducing the annual rate of HIV infection in sero-discordant couples (where only one partner is infected and risk of infection to the other is high) by 85% when used consistently. (National Institutes of Health, “Workshop summary: scientific evidence on condom effectiveness for sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention,” July, 2001.)

For the pope and the Catholic hierarchy to deny the role that condoms play in preventing the further spread of HIV is irresponsible and dangerous. The role the hierarchy plays in shaping domestic policy on condom use and family planning costs people their health, their livelihoods and sometimes their lives.

Catholics the world over unequivocally believe that using condoms is the truly prolife position and disagree with the Vatican's ban on condoms. Policymakers and the public need to be aware that when the bishops come to Capitol Hill, they do not always represent the best interests of the millions of men and women around the world who rely on the US in their hour of need.

More information on what Catholics believe about condom use is available at

http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/documents/BRSPOLLFINAL1.pdf