Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Worth Protecting

This is in response to AJM's comment, below.

Africans, like American teens, can be taught abstinence. Of course. The problem is, the "message" takes time and energy and money--a lot of time and energy and money--to disseminate. I'm not sure when all of the potential HIV vectors (read sexually promiscuous men and women) are are going to be contacted and lectured on abstinence. But I know--as an absolute fact--that thousands, ney, millions more will be infected and die before then.

I've heard the "mixed messages" argument many times. I totally disagree that encouraging condom use is "encouraging people to engage in an act that affects much more than their immune systems." Whether it's viewed as condoning or not, I really don't care. People are smart enough to understand the difference between short-term solutions that put out fires and long-term solutions that cure the arsonist. The bigger point: until (and in many cases after; I'm doing everything I can to resist quoting last month's Yale/Columbia study) people are educated about the negative consequences associated with extramarital sex, people will engage in extramarital sex. It's the lesser of two evils to prevent the spread of AIDS at all costs.

I also disagree with AJM that telling Africans (or teens) to use a condom is patronizing. Hardly. It is recognizing their human vulnerabilities in a way that saves the lives of them and their families. To hold back is to patronize. To keep condoms from them is to say you and your family are not worth protecting because you have not committed to change your behaviors. Worse, from the outside, it might look like Conservatives are saying "you're not worth protecting because you're not like us."

We are all human, all sinners, all prone to weakness. AJM is saying that by acknowledging this weakness and somehow "allowing" it, we undermine the ability of these people to change, become more God-like. I can understand his concern. But it's secondary to the bigger problem. While I agree that behavior modification in the long run is the way to go, I cannot condone putting scarce resources into behavior modification only when incredibly cheap and, contrary to AJM's assertion, effective condoms are available and could be widely disseminated.

And--by the way--I know a lot of Christians who happen to agree. This is an example of where the liberal Methodists and other Protestant denominations diverge from their Evangelical cousins.
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AJM's comment:


First of all, The Accipiter's obvious anger is understandable. Any policy that has as a known effect the unnecessary infection of innocent women and children with an incurable disease is beyond justification. (As an aside, I know that, while The Accipiter and I disagree on this point, neither of us doubts the other's good faith or thinks that the other is unmoved by the AIDS pandemic and its tragic consequences.) But to put aside an irrelevancy, the movement toward abstinence-first education and away from condom distribution is not about judging others or punishing the wives and children of "sinners." As The Accipiter correctly points out, we all are sinners (I would add: in the hands of a just and merciful God).

From the Christian perspective, AIDS is merely a symptom of an even more fundamental problem. It is one of the natural and disastrous effects of extra-marital sexual activity. The other symptoms include other sexually-transmitted diseases, divorce, depression, low self esteem, teen pregnancy, and deadbeat fathers. So, we Christians believe that stemming AIDS with condoms is a little like treating a massive head wound with a band-aid. And yes, as The Accipiter anticipates, I would very much like to include here a reference to Uganda. While Uganda is dealing with the source problem -- sexual promiscuity -- the symptoms, including AIDS, are being held in check. Other African peoples need not convert to Christianity in order to see the effectiveness of abstinence-only education and programs in Uganda and to adopt such programs within their own nations.

I say that condoms are a little like band-aids because the analogy cannot be pushed too far. Band-aid distribution occurs with the tacit understanding that their necessity can be expected, though that necessity is never sought. People are generally not tempted to suffer wounds. They are, however, tempted to engage in extra-marital sexual acts, which adversely affect not just their bodies but also (if the Christian view is to be believed) their souls and psyches. Condom distribution may stem the spread of AIDS a little (they are not 100% effective and there is no guarantee that they will be used, in any event). But it has been proven (in Uganda and elsewhere) that incentives toward sexual purity reduce the spread of AIDS a lot. And by distributing condoms we are mixing our messages -- encouraging people to engage in an act that affects much more than their immune systems.

You might disagree with imposing the "Christian" approach upon non-Christians if it can be established that it is, in fact, within the exclusive purview of Christians and effective only for Christians. (In any event, the Christian approach is hardly "appalling.") However, we Christians happen to believe that our approach is in the best interest of everyone, whether they recognize our God or not. The evidence favors that view. To throw up our hands in resignation (they are going to have sex anyway; we might as well make it safe) is patronizing. Africans, like American teens, can be taught. It is also against the best interest of us all.

To promulgate anything but abstinence education and incentives is to do a disservice to those whom we are trying to help.

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