Letters & Op-Eds 2012
San Jose Mercury News

Catholic Church inhibits AIDS work in Philippines

At the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington DC this week, activists from around the world are exchanging experiences about what works in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Advocates from the Philippines will be paying attention to the wisdom gathered in other areas. Unfortunately, we are hindered in accessing one lifesaving tool–condoms.

HIV has had a relatively low prevalence in the Philippines, but it is rapidly rising. The Catholic hierarchy has fought the passage of a Reproductive Health Bill for more than a decade, though the country is in desperate need of the care the legislation would guarantee. In a country where 75 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has been huge stumbling block against proven methods of fighting the AIDS epidemic.

The Philippines is one of seven countries where the incidence of HIV infection has increased more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2009. Where many other nations have had strategies in place for years, the rapid change in the Philippines translates into a dangerous situation where only 20 percent of people ages 15-24 understand how to prevent HIV. The use of condoms is one obvious place to start.

According to the World Health Organization, countries that implement 100 percent condom use contain epidemics and reverse the trend more quickly. But when Health Secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral led a campaign to distribute condoms, one bishop said she already had “one foot in hell.”

When the Catholic hierarchy puts its mind to it, however, it has had a tremendous influence for good. The Catholic Order of the Ministers of the Infirm’s treatment for people affected by HIV and AIDS is featured in the best practices section of the latest UN AIDS report. But when bishops make statements that condoms don’t prevent HIV transmission or demand warning labels on condom advertisements, they make it all but impossible to stem the rising tide of cases.

The bishops’ conference wrote in 1993 that “the Church spares no effort to help prevent the spread of AIDS.” If only that were true. If the bishops supported the unique needs of at-risk populations–women, men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, sex workers, sailors–instead of saying that condoms create a false sense of security and encourage promiscuity, we would be making significant strides forward. Instead they work to keep condoms from the people who need them.

When the Condoms4Life campaign posted billboards in the Philippines in 2001, they bore a message of accountability for the bishops: “Banning Condoms Kills.” The hierarchy still needs to hear that message today. Responsible people, including good Catholics, use condoms, and they need to be able to have that condom when and where they need it. If only the Philippine bishops would take their lead from the Pope, who acknowledged in 2010 that condoms can play a role in preventing the spread of HIV.

Preventing escalating infections starts now with compassionate, comprehensive care. According to a 2007 poll, 77 percent of Catholics in the Philippines believe that using condoms is pro-life because it prevents the spread of HIV. Filipinos are still waiting for the bishops to stop acting as roadblocks. In the meantime, the activists, community organizers, pro choice legislators and others who believe that condoms are an ethical choice will be the ones “sparing no effort” in saving lives.

This op-ed was originally published by the San Jose Mercury Times.

Catholics for Choice