Pope Okays Use of Condoms in “Some Situations”

Jodi Jacobson

In a reversal of long standing teachings, the Pope has reversed the Vatican's prohibition of condoms for HIV prevention in "some situations." Birth control remains banned.

Pope Benedict XVI stated this weekend that condom use will now be acceptable for Catholics “in certain cases,” notably “to reduce the risk of infection” with HIVReuters reports that in a series of interviews published in his native German, the 83-year-old Benedict is asked whether “the Catholic Church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms.”

“It of course does not see it as a real and moral solution,” the pope replies.

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

Until now, the Vatican had prohibited the use of any form of safer sex technology, even for those at risk of HIV infections or other sexually transmitted diseases, claiming that abstinence was the only acceptable means of preventing infection.  It retains the ban on contraception for those practicing Catholic orthodoxy even in cases where a woman’s life might be at risk from an additional pregnancy.  Despite the ban on contraceptive use, the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the United States, and in many Catholic countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Brazil, use contraception regularly.

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The Pope’s statement allowing condom use comes a year and some months after he condemned the use of condoms even for HIV prevention in March 2009 while traveling in sub-Saharan Africa. According to coverage of that trip by The Guardian.com:

The pontiff said condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight against HIV and Aids and could make the problem worse.

Benedict XVI made his comments as he flew to Cameroon for the first leg of a six-day trip that will also see him travelling to Angola.

The timing of his remarks outraged health agencies trying to halt the spread of HIV and Aids in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22 million people are infected.

In its coverage of the Pope’s more recent remarks, Agence-France Presse reports that:

To illustrate his apparent shift in position, Benedict offered the example of a male prostitute using a condom.

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes,” Benedict was quoted as saying.

“But it is not the proper way to deal with the horror of HIV infection.”

Benedict reiterated that condom use alone would not solve the problem of HIV/AIDS. “More must happen,” he said.

Catholic advocacy groups concerned with reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice enthusiastically applauded the move.

In a statement, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said:

We are delighted that the pope has acknowledged that condoms can help reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV. It is a marvelous victory for common sense and reason and a major step forward towards recognizing that condom use can play a vital role in reducing the future impact of the HIV pandemic.

“The pope said that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is ‘a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane sexuality,'” noted O’Brien.  “This admission is the Catholic hierarchy’s own first step in addressing the realities about sex and sexuality.

However, while this is a game-changing statement, we acknowledge that there is still a long way to go before the Vatican’s teachings on condoms meet the needs of Catholics around the world—for contraception as well as for HIV and AIDS prevention.”

O’Brien pointed to the need for the Vatican to expand both the populations covered by the new more “liberal” policy.

“While we naturally agree that condoms should be available for male sex workers, we and millions of Catholics also think they should be available to everyone at risk of contracting or transmitting HIV—women as well as men.”

Still, he said, “Those of us who have been praying and campaigning about these issues for the past two and half decades are very heartened by this move.”

While it is not clear whether this is the first in a series of gradual shifts by the Vatican on HIV prevention and perhaps even contraception, the new position on condom use will inevitably make prevention of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections easier. 

Condoms are a dual protection method: they can be used to prevent both pregnancy and infection. In those countries–such as the Bolivia, Kenya, Peru, and the Philippines– where the Church has had a stranglehold on policies regarding government investments in expanding access to contraceptive methods and to safer sex strategies, increased recognition by the Church of the need for condoms even in limited situations may have wider implications for access to condoms.

It also may change the politics of U.S. international and domestic funding on safer sex strategies. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, has been instrumental in undermining the inclusion of effective prevention strateiges in U.S. funded international programs, and helped write legislative guidance denying HIV-positive women access to contraception.  HIV-positive women whose only access to health care is through a Catholic charity may now find they have greater latitiude for use of condoms to avoid HIV re-infection as well as to limit, space, or avoid additional births.

In a nod to the broader implications, Catholics for Choice’s O’Brien said:

“Pope Benedict is the leader of a church that receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year for HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention. We hope that this statement is only the first step on the path to making sure that people who need condoms and education about how to use them effectively can get the services they need. It will be especially significant for the many, many people who work for Catholic aid agencies and have been secretly handing out condoms while fearing that they will lose their jobs. It is also a suitable moment to recognize that taxpayer money that goes to Catholic agencies may now be used to fund comprehensive prevention programs—something that has been a concern for some time. For example, read our special report on this issue, “Seeing Is Believing.”

“At the very least, all those who work in Catholic healthcare delivery now understand that condoms play a critical role in preventing the spread of HIV,” said O’Brien.

Education about and distribution of condoms should become the norm, not the exception. We call on governments and other donors who fund the Catholic church’s healthcare and HIV and AIDS programs to ensure that they do just that.

It is clear that were this to happen, there would be vastly greater hope for reaching oft-reiterated and never-reached goals such as achieving great reductions in maternal mortality and morbidity, and stopping the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week In Sex: Middle Schoolers Get Condoms, Some University Students Don’t Use Them

Martha Kempner

This week in sex, the San Francisco School Board voted unanimously to approve condom availability for middle school students, agencies provide new advice on Zika virus, and a survey of University of Minnesota students found fewer of them are using condoms these days.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

San Francisco School Board Votes to Make Condoms Available in Middle School

The San Francisco school board voted unanimously to make condoms available to middle school students despite opposition from some parents. The proposal was put forth by the district’s superintendent after a survey found that while 5 percent of middle school students are sexually active, fewer than 40 percent of those students are using condoms. Board Member Rachel Norton told the San Francisco Chronicle“This is not a giveaway program. They are going to be in a private, controlled space with an educator. This policy really is about the handful of students that really need it.”

Some parents and community members, however, argued that this would encourage sexual activity in other young people. Victor Seeto, issues chairman of the Chinese American Democratic Club, said, “The program’s message says sex is normal, is acceptable, but disease is bad. Let us strengthen the family and not weaken it.”

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Nikkie Ho, a parent in the district, told local media, “We’re talking about between 11 and 14 years old. And they are not ready for it, so I don’t think this is appropriate.”

Others were supportive of the plan. One mother pointed out, “It’s latex; it’s an inanimate object. It’s not going to tell my kid what to do. I don’t see what the problem is.”

District officials believe this is an opportunity to engage students in discussions about their reproductive health. They are so committed to making condoms available that parents are not allowed to opt out of the program.

Research shows that allowing students access to condoms does not increase sexual behavior but does increase condom use. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that schools are an important place to make condoms available.

Advice Differs on Zika Virus Found in Sperm and Breast Milk 

Zika virus is mainly spread by mosquitos but, as with other viruses, it has been found in both sperm and breast milk of infected people. As of now, however, only sperm is considered a possible route of transmission and breastfeeding women in affected areas are being told to continue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating 14 cases in which the Zika virus appears to have been sexually transmitted. All of these cases involve possible infections in female partners of men who recently traveled to areas with Zika outbreaks. Several of the women are pregnant.

Zika virus is usually mild with symptoms that last about a week, such as fever, joint aches, and a rash. The virus, however, may be linked to a condition known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, an auto-immune disorder that can cause temporary paralysis. In addition, researchers are trying to determine what link, if any, Zika has to an alarming number of babies born in Brazil with microcephaly, a birth defect in which the head is much too small.

The CDC is advising that men who have traveled to regions affected by Zika either abstain from sex or use condoms during sex with pregnant partners.

In contrast, the World Health Organization urges women in infected regions to continue breastfeeding despite evidence of the virus in the breast milk of at least two mothers. The WHO said that scientists still don’t know how much of the virus is present in breast milk and for how long it might remain there. Researchers also question whether mothers who have had Zika can pass along protective antibodies through their breast milk.

Despite these unknowns, the WHO says that for babies exposed to Zika after birth, there have been no reported cases of brain damage or neurological problems. Therefore, the agency believes that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks and is encouraging women in Zika-affected areas to continue.

Condom Use at All-Time Low for University of Minnesota Students

The University of Minnesota wants its students to use condoms to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Like many schools, it makes condoms available free of charge at various places around campus. But a survey says that condom use among students is down and, not surprisingly, STIs are up.

The survey was done with about 2,000 students, none of whom were married or in long-term committed relationships. It found that only 52 percent used a condom the last time they had sex. This is down from 60 percent just five years ago. The number of students reporting an STI diagnosis is, in contrast, up from 6 percent in 2013 to 9 percent this year.

On-campus health center officials do not know for sure what has prompted the drop in condoms use, but speculate that increased access to other forms of birth control (such as the IUD) and a decreased sense of urgency about HIV may be part of the cause.

Commentary Religion

It’s Pope Francis Who Should Apologize on Abortion

Erin Matson

With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican's opposition to abortion and women's equality.

Pope Francis has a limited-time offer just for women who have abortions: Confess, and you won’t be excommunicated. Hurry! Only women who confess to a priest before November 20, 2016—during the “Year of Mercy”—will remain eligible to kneel and pray at the instruction of an all-male hierarchy that insists upon the subordination of women.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women who have abortions] to this decision,” the Pope said. He suggested women “believe they have no other option.” Priests will have the “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

It seems the Pope Francis Sex TalkTM brand is expanding. With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican’s opposition to abortion and women’s equality.

This has practically become a formula: Cool Pope says something that sounds like he cares about the huge swaths of people routinely discriminated against by the biggest patriarchy in the world for being women, gay, or unwilling to have children. But the doctrine doesn’t change, which means that nice comments don’t make for nice policy. Lobbyists representing the Catholic Church’s leadership continue to wreak great destruction around the world, whether messing with the Affordable Care Act at home or insisting on denying condoms to people in AIDS-ravaged areas abroad. And billions of public dollars are funneled into Catholic institutions that insist they have a right to discriminate on the taxpayer dole.

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His latest ploy on abortion is more of the same. Yes, people love Pope Francis and his tone is different and refreshing. Many may also find his pastoral approach comforting. But although we need to start somewhere, we also need to look at the bigger picture. The Pope’s comments are just stigma masquerading as understanding.

A woman who has had an abortion has done nothing wrong. She doesn’t need to apologize, and she certainly doesn’t need to apologize to a man representing an institution that denies her equality. (Remember when Pope Benedict compared the ordination of women to pedophilia? Pope Francis has enforced the same toxic nonsense about keeping women out of the priesthood; he just says things that make it sound nicer.) So, then, this isn’t actually about reassuring women who have had abortions. This is about continuing to single them out and shame them.

In the context of women’s lives, access to abortion is a matter of human dignity. And that dignity includes being trusted to make moral decisions—such as the one to end a pregnancy—for ourselves. Any outsider looking in who thinks he knows better is frankly sexist, drawing upon awful ideas that women are too stupid and wicked to be trusted with the management of our own lives. Preventing a woman’s access to abortion through advocating for restrictions upon reproductive care, as the Vatican does, is immoral.

A few weeks ago I helped to transport an abortion fund patient from a clinic to a hotel room. Prior to her procedure, she’d been growing frustrated with the several weeks it was taking to raise the money, find someone to watch her kids, and manage travel to another city where abortion is available after the first trimester. She’d started to wonder openly if she could “do something’” to force a miscarriage at home. This is how a great variety of piecemeal abortion restrictions—funding restrictions, TRAP laws, waiting periods, bans on specific procedures—work together to put woman in potential danger. (Or serve time in prison for trying to take matters into their own hands.)

Women who decide to have abortions will have abortions, and the question is merely if we want them to be safe. Should the woman I met have put herself at risk from an illegal abortion instead? Or found herself in handcuffs, like Kenlissia Jones? We don’t know: Unfortunately, Pope Francis hasn’t issued statements on the dire need to replace illegal abortion with safe abortion, or the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes; he just wants women to apologize to priests.

Pope Francis has it all wrong on abortion. The Catholic Church’s leaders owe women a profound apology.

It is thanks to the Vatican’s terrible rules against reproductive health care that a woman in California was nearly driven to travel 160 miles away from her family to give birth, because her local “pro-life” Catholic hospital initially refused to give her a tubal ligation after a planned cesarean section. It is in the name of “a Catholic country” that women like Savita Halappanavar have been forced to die after begging for life-saving abortions. Some advocates even argue that it is in anticipation of the Pope’s visit and in deference to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that President Obama has continued his bad legacy on reproductive rights by failing to take executive action that would extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones.

In 2010, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated for authorizing a life-saving abortion at a Phoenix hospital. Is Pope Francis really telling her, and the woman whose life she helped to save, that they are the ones who committed evil and need to come back and apologize?

Maybe the better thing would be for Pope Francis to listen. That’s why my organization, Reproaction, has launched a #HeyPopeFrancis campaign that invites people to tell Pope Francis what they think he should do next. The responses so far have been varied and creative; many folks are concerned by the Vatican’s stance against abortion, contraception, and women’s ordination, and take exception to Pope’s statements about LGBTQ families. Still others are urging him to do even more on the environment and immigration. The bottom line is that this Pope is presenting himself as an agent of hope and changeand it’s now on all of us to share with him our hopes for meaningful change.

This is 2015. Women are human beings. They have dignity, and they must be respected. Women must be treated as equals, and there is no such thing as equality without easy access to abortion. If we are to have a just society that upholds its moral obligation to ensure no one is held back on the basis of gender, abortion must be accessible and funded for every person who needs it—no harassment, stigma, or “religious liberty” attached. And if you think equality for women makes sense so long as women abstain from sex or are willing to accept the “consequences” of pregnancy, then you don’t believe in equality for women. That’s wrong, and it’s that simple.

Rather than a call to confession about abortion, it would be far more redemptive for Pope Francis to call for a new dialogue within the Catholic Church about gender equality that would elevate the voices of a diverse group of women—including women who have had abortions, women who aren’t sorry about their abortions, and, oh yeah, women priests. That would represent major progress too.

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