The dogmatic and the pragmatic
During his highly-publicized first trip to Africa last week, Pope Benedict XVI made an extremely controversial statement regarding the use of condoms to protect against the spread of HIV/AIDS, a disease which has killed over 25 million Africans since the early 1980s and currently infects more than 22 million more. This past Tuesday, on a jet en route to Cameroon's capital city of Yaoundé, the pontiff stated to reporters that, "[AIDS] cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem." This statement has since been widely — and rightly — condemned as ignominious and potentially dangerous; it has also seen some limited support, most notably from the Russian Orthodox Church. But let us return to the issue at hand: to argue that condoms, one of the most effective means we have to combat the spread of HIV, somehow "increase the problem" is not unlike arguing that the wearing of seatbelts increases the risk of injury or death during an auto accident or that quitting smoking increases the risk of lung cancer and heart disease. Each of these hypotheses is ridiculous on its face. Of course, more extensive condom distribution is not a panacea for the AIDS epidemic — proper education about the risks associated with sexual activity, and how to reduce them, is also paramount, but the role of condoms in slowing rates of HIV infection is indisputable.
As stated above, many have been critical of the pope's remarks, including some top figures in the public health community. Craig McClure, executive director of the International AIDS Society, notes that 17 percent of Africans practice Catholicism and, therefore, "rely on the spiritual guidance of the pope." The suggestion, he continues, "that condom use contributes to the HIV problem is not merely contrary to scientific evidence and global consensus, it contributes to fueling HIV infection and its consequences — sickness and death." World Health Assembly President Leslie Ramsammy called the pope's contention "absolutely and unequivocally wrong." Further, according to the Associated Press, a formidable number of "priests and nuns working with those living with HIV/AIDS question the church's opposition to condoms amid the pandemic ravaging Africa." The pope, of course, based his statement on the traditional Catholic belief that premarital sex and the use of contraception are morally unjustifiable. It is indeed true that the best way to avoid contracting HIV is to remain abstinent. Nevertheless, condoms, when used properly, are 99 percent effective at stopping sexually transmitted diseases. We must also remember that more than 80 percent of Africans are not Catholic and, as such, do not take their ethical cues from the Vatican. If condom distribution were to be halted, this majority would presumably continue to engage in premarital sex without even the option of protection, further increasing Africa's HIV-positive population.
The pope's comments, it must be noted, are unique neither in their dogmatic nature nor in their prospectively dangerous consequences. Such ill-informed, overly ideological policy recommendations are, unfortunately, quite commonplace in contemporary society and often serve to endanger, rather than protect, the population. For instance, let us consider abstinence-only sex education, which saw tremendous increases in federal funding under former President George W. Bush's administration. According to a 2004 report prepared for the office of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., "over two-thirds of abstinence-only education programs funded by the largest federal abstinence initiative are using curricula with multiple scientific and medical inaccuracies. These curricula contain misinformation about condoms, abortion and basic scientific facts. They also blur religion and science and present gender stereotypes as fact." The report found that many abstinence-only education programs disseminate inaccurate information regarding the effectiveness of contraceptives and the risks of abortion. Among the most glaring scientific errors found in the curricula examined were the assertions that HIV can be contracted through sweat or tears and that a human being's DNA is composed of 24, rather than 23, chromosome pairs. The thorough processes which lead to such programs are, like those which led the pontiff to condemn the distribution of condoms, both unduly peremptory and incredibly ill-suited for policymaking in our complex modern society. We need only observe that the rate of gonorrhea infection among American teenagers is 70 times higher than that of their peers in France and Holland — where comprehensive sex education is the standard — in order to see the disastrous effects that these misguided policy approaches can have.
Lest my readers think that I view religion as the source of all such problems, it is prudent to state that unjustifiable dogma need not be derived from scripture; indeed, quite often it is not. The current financial crisis is a perfect case in point: since the early 1980s, but perhaps most vigorously over the past eight years under Bush, government regulations controlling a great many aspects of the economy were either relaxed or done away with altogether. There was a blind belief on the part of those in the conservative economic camp that the economy should be regulated as little as possible because the free market would professedly solve any problems that arose — any government intervention was viewed as an obstacle to economic growth. We see now just how wrong this philosophy was and just how egregious its effects are: skyrocketing unemployment rates, crippling losses of retirement savings, rising foreclosures and increased homelessness. I have outlined above some of the disastrous consequences of ill-informed, dogmatic approaches to public policy. It is my hope that by recognizing the failures of such approaches, we will evaluate those of the future frequently and critically, so as to create policies that protect the well being of all rather than merely satisfy the ideological cravings of those with the loudest voices.
Josh Baker is a Rutgers College senior majoring in sociology. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com. His column, "Zeitgeist," runs on alternate Wednesdays. He is also a contributing writer for the Johnsonville Press.