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Letters & Op-Eds - 2003

national catholic reporter

Word from Rome: Condom Criticism

John L. Allen, Jr. and Frances Kissling

31 October 2003

Note: This piece by Frances Kissling appeared as part of John L. Allen, Jr.'s "Word from Rome" column in the National Catholic Reporter.

Two weeks ago I carried an item about Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo's comments to the BBC on condoms and their alleged defects in blocking transmission of HIV. The item brought this response from Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, calling my report "irresponsible and dangerous."

Allen reports on claims by Lopez Trujillo that the AIDS virus passes through condoms and therefore causes the spread of AIDS.   In support of this and without any comment, Allen cites an article on "safe sex" written by a Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau in the Lexicon-Ambiguous terms on family, life, and ethical concerns, a recent publication of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and containing articles by authors with close ties to the Vatican.

Allen cites Suaudeau as if he were a credible AIDS expert, calling him "a medical doctor who once worked in the [National Institutes of Health]."  A search of medical journals and studies shows that Suaudeau, trained as a surgeon in France before joining the priesthood, published on coronary research during his tenure at the Institutes, and turns up no contribution by him to scientific journals on sexually transmitted disease, HIV/AIDS, or any related topic.  His contributions on HIV and AIDS can be found in such places as the aforementioned Lexicon, the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, and journals from Catholic universities in Rome – hardly the peer-reviewed outlets one expects from Allen's description of the man.

Allen attempts to justify his one-sided reporting, claiming that he does not know enough science to pass judgment on Suaudeau's, and subsequently Trujillo's, claims. A brief survey of other news could have helped educate Allen and NCR readers. Immediately after Trujillo's statement was broadcast, public health experts spoke out condemning the claims.

The World Health Organization said, "These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million."  WHO maintains that "consistent and correct" use of condoms reduces transmission by 90 percent.  Thoraya Obaid, executive director of UNFPA, the United National Population Fund, said, "[Trujillo's] position is not scientifically accurate, and could contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS."

No reputable figure in the AIDS prevention community, the gay community, or the church reform community has ever claimed that condoms are 100 percent effective in preventing the spread of AIDS. But every reliable scientific and health related agency and professional has been clear that if one is going to be sexually active and is at risk of spreading HIV, condoms are an essential and very effective – even at less than 100 percent – measure to prevent the spread of the disease.

We might understand that Vatican officials pay no heed to facts about condom efficacy for AIDS prevention; in fact, responding to research clearly disputing Trujillo's statements, the cardinal said merely, "They are wrong."  We expect more from NCR. … No report, even one that is not designed to deal with the health issue of the AIDS crisis, should ever be written or published without making the facts on transmission and effective measures to reduce transmission perfectly clear.

This letter appeared in the 31 October 2003 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.