Pope Benedict XVI Is Wrong on Condoms

Thursday, March 19, 2009

THE LATE New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts." This holds true even for the pope.

While on a flight to Cameroon on Tuesday to begin a weeklong journey through Africa, Pope Benedict XVI said, "You can't resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." In a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships. But the world isn't perfect -- and neither is Pope Benedict's pronouncement on the effectiveness of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The evidence says so.

Are condoms foolproof protection against infection by HIV, which causes AIDS? No. Sometimes they break, and sometimes people put them on incorrectly. Still, doctors on the front lines of the fight against the AIDS epidemic established long ago that the use of condoms greatly diminishes the transmission of HIV, the cause of a disease that has no cure. That the pope chose to question the value of condoms in fighting the nearly 28-year-old scourge while heading to the continent whose people are most affected by it is troubling. According to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, sub-Saharan Africa is the epidemic's center, with 67 percent of the world's 32.9 million people with HIV and with 75 percent of all AIDS deaths. Heterosexual intercourse is the "driving force" of the epidemic.

The pope's comment was so alarming that a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said, "We consider that these statements endanger public health policies and the imperative to protect human life." What the pontiff said was especially discordant to us coming a day after the District's HIV/AIDS Administration released its startling survey showing that 3 percent of this city's residents are living with HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define a "severe" epidemic in a specific area as at least 1 percent of the population being infected. To halt the march of HIV/AIDS, those who have the infection must be treated. Those who do not have it need all the information and tools possible to remain HIV-negative. The pope's denunciation of condoms is of no help.

Do you have a different view of this issue? Debate a member of the editorial board today in the Editorial Judgment discussion group.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company