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The Politics of Condoms

When it comes to AIDS prevention, science stoops to narrow ideology

“The Pope may be right,” suggested Dr. Edward C. Green to The Harvard Crimson, “The marketing and distribution of condoms won’t solve the problem. Partner fidelity has a much better chance.”

Dr. Green, a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, directed the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project and had worked and researched extensively on the HIV pandemic afflicting sub-Saharan Africa. And his conclusions, expressing agreement with Pope Benedict XVI—who, on his recent trip to the continent, had denied the panacean potential of prophylactics—provoked a miniature firestorm.

While the Center for Population and Development Studies has decided since to discontinue the project, Dr. Green has presented in many interviews and newspaper articles the scientific data wherewith to support his controversial conclusions. Increased availability of condoms has not led to a substantial increase in their use, as such devices carry the social stigma of a lack of trust. But, more dangerously, where the use of condoms has accelerated, there lurks the possibility of “risk compensation”—the phenomenon where the peace of mind afforded by a new technological safeguard, such as seatbelts, actually leads to riskier behavior, such as more reckless driving.

But, as Dr. Green has explained, the real impetus behind Africa’s pandemic, as opposed to other localized AIDS outbreaks, is the prevalence of multiple and concurrent sexual partners. HIV spreads at a markedly more efficient rate within the first few weeks of infection. As a result, if those infected reduced the frequency with which they changed partners or are linked to existing partners—let alone practiced abstinence—the disease could not continue to proliferate at its current prodigious levels.

If these data are confirmed by continued observation and analysis, both Dr. Green’s and the Pope’s comments indeed will have proven consistent with the findings of impartial science.

But therein lies the difficulty. The financial and political drivers of AIDS research and prevention strategies have an interest in the outcome of any such scientific inquiry. For the conventional wisdom on the subject seeks to form a conclusion not, like science, that is independent of and unprejudiced by the imprecise and unverifiable tenets of morality or religion, but rather one that explicitly undermines them.

As Dr. Green pointed out in a Washington Post editorial, “The condom has long been a symbol of freedom and—along with contraception—female emancipation.” As such, many who promote the use of condoms to stem the African AIDS crisis do so not for their efficacy as much as on principle.

Of course, Dr. Green and many of his like-minded colleagues in the field do not denigrate the use of condoms, except as the exclusive or primary strategy of AIDS prevention. He describes himself as a liberal, asserts that condoms ought to be available to everyone, and openly admits his previous work in marketing contraceptives.

His conclusions on the efficacy of condoms in the African pandemic are not wed to any ethical or moral point of view. Dr. Green and those of his ilk are scientists, concerned with what the data say. Or, as he succinctly put it: “I have always been politically incorrect. I have always questioned authority and tried to speak truth to power whatever the consequences.”

Dr. Green exemplifies the former ideal for men of science. The intellectual progeny of the Enlightenment and its assault on the teleological view of the universe and of man’s nature, modern science had won for itself the liberty to investigate material phenomena without regard for the political or moral consequences of their findings. The most certain and dependable knowledge that men can acquire comes only from a rigorous and mathematical inquiry into nature. The tenets of theology or the moral virtues—the most important knowledge for the soul—may have had greater priority in previous societies. Yet the innovation of our age has been to discredit such matters as necessarily spurious and speculative and thus not the subject of real intellectual activity. What matters to moderns is the data—and in its slavish devotion to the data, science gained its intellectual pre-eminence.

But the contemporary field of AIDS research and prevention, at least, does not accord the data such dignity. Dr. Green and those who concur with his findings run counter to the prevailing prejudices. Leftist politicians continue to malign and censure the Pope for his opinions, and the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS shuns “evidence-based” for “evidence-informed” advocacy, willfully blind to any scientific proof that questions its pre-conceived solutions.

While the Pope and other religious leaders would not sacrifice their moral tenets no matter what the scientific evidence says about AIDS prevention strategy, presumably objective and impartial scientists should have no qualms about adhering so strictly to the data.

The unfortunate irony of this episode—as Africans continue to suffer from the pandemic—is that those who would arraign the Pope for callous disregard for reality are in fact the ones moralizing in ignorance of the data. Except that they have abandoned a traditional regard for moral virtue and absolute truth in favor of a vain and vacuous worship of freedom.


Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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