Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: New Mexico Health Official Fired for Condom Stance and Vatican Criticizes Nun for Views on Masturbation

Martha Kempner

New Mexico's Chief Medical Officer is fired hours after suggesting condoms could prevent STIs among the state's teenagers; the United Kingdom sees an increase in STIs after the government pulls funding for social marketing campaigns; and the Vatican takes aim at a nun who believes masturbation, same-sex behavior, and same-sex marriage is okay.

New Mexico Health Official Fired Hours After Advocating for Condoms, Coincidence?

In a television interview at the end of May, New Mexico’s Chief Medical Officer Erin Bouquin was asked about the rising rates of gonorrhea and Chlamydia which are up 50 percent among teenagers in the state. Dr. Bouquin replied by saying that she advocates for an “ABC approach — Abstain, Be Faithful, and Use Condoms.”  She explained: “Condoms are very, very important in controlling sexually transmitted diseases.” An hour later she was summoned to the office of Catherine Torres, the Secretary of the Department of Health and asked to resign. 

Both the department and the governor’s office maintain that the interview had nothing to do with her departure arguing that Bouquin was considered a probationary employee because she had only been on the job for four months, that she had “not met the expectations of the governor,” and that her resignation was part of a larger reorganization of the department.

Bouquin sees it differently, saying: “On the day I was asked to leave, I said the word condom three times on the news.” She believes that her comments conflicted with the direction that the health department and the governor are taking toward STI prevention and sex education. She said the department is becoming more political and notes that it recently applied for funding under the resurrected federal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage grant program.

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The governor’s office replied to allegations by saying:

“the governor is a proponent of taking a balanced and multi-pronged approach to controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases; there is nothing in Dr. Bouquin’s interview that would conflict with that approach.”

We may never know the real reason she was let go but it would not be surprising if a public health official were dismissed for advocating condom use for teens — many adults and certainly many politicians would prefer to pretend teens have no needs for condoms.

STIs on the Rise in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is seeing a major rise in Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). The Health Protection Agency’s (HPA’s) annual report, released last week, found a two percent increase in newly diagnosed cases of STIs from 2010 to 2011 with a total of 427,000 new cases. This reverses a small decline that had been seen in previous years. Cases of Gonorrhea rose by a whopping 25 percent from 16,835 cases in 2010 to 20,065 cases in 2011. Cases of syphilis were up ten percent, genital herpes five percent, and genital warts one percent.

The only STI that saw a decline was Chlamydia; newly-diagnosed cases of this infection dropped two percent. However, public health professionals believe that this is due to a drop in Chlamydia screening and not a true drop in the number of people who became infected.  Undiagnosed Chlamydia is a serious problem because if left untreated it can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) and infertility.

The increase in STIs is particularly notable in young heterosexual individuals and men who have sex with men. Over half of all STIs diagnosed in 2011 (57 percent) were among young people under 25. Health officials say this is a direct result of young people not using condoms. The largest rise in new diagnoses in 2011, however, was among men who have sex with men. In this population, gonorrhea increased by 61 percent, Chlamydia by 48 percent, and syphilis by 28 percent. Dr. Gwen Hughs, the head of STI surveillance for the HPA said:

“The data in young, heterosexual people and MSM is very concerning. Too many people are practising unsafe sex…. We think it is crucial that work to reduce STIs continues with a focus on at-risk groups.”

Many in the U.K. suggest that the government’s recent cut in funding for social marketing campaigns is behind these new numbers. According to the Guardian:

“When the coalition government came to power, it temporarily froze all spending on social marketing, although funding for campaigns such as the anti-obesity drive Change4Life has resumed. The onus under the health reforms will now be on local authorities, who will be expected to champion the public health initiatives needed in their own area.”

Experts fear that this cut in campaigns has meant that fewer people are now aware of the risk of STIs. Two sexual health charities in the U.K. issued a statement saying these numbers demonstrate:

“exactly why safer sex messages and campaigns that young people and gay men will listen to and take action on, are absolutely necessary. Testing and treatment services are vital, but alone they are not enough to change people’s behaviour.”

Vatican Takes Aim at a Popular Book by an American Nun

In April, the Vatican issued a scathing report criticizing American nuns. The report investigated the Leadership Conference of Women Religious an organization that represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States. It declared that the organization had “serious doctrinal problems” and promoted “radical feminists themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Many were outraged by this and noted that these nuns (whose median age is 74) had dedicated their lives to helping the sick and the poor.  The public outcry seems not to have stopped Vatican which took aim today at one nun who authored a popular book about sexuality.

Sister Margaret A. Farley is a member of the Sisters of Mercy, a professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Yale University, and the author of Just Love, a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Since it was published in 2007, the book was hailed by the Jesuit order’s weekly magazine as “an important message in a time in which sexual abuse and violence are rampant and the Catholic Church has failed to protect children from sexual exploitation.” It also received the 2008 Louisville Grawemeyer Award for books on religion.

The Vatican, however, has a different opinion of the book. Its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “notification” in which it criticized Farley saying her writing showed a “defective understanding of the objective nature of natural moral law.” It went on to ban the use of her book in Catholic education. Specifically the Congregation objects to what Farley writes about masturbation, same-sex sexual behavior, and gay marriage.

For example, Farley writes that masturbation (especially for women) “usually does not raise any moral questions at all” and that it “actually serves relationships rather than hindering them.” This contradicts the Church’s view that masturbation is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” She also writes that “same-sex oriented persons as well as their activities can and should be respected.” The Vatican, in contrast, stated in its notification that homosexual tendencies are not sinful but homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered (and) contrary to the natural law.”

In the end, the Vatican says that Farley’s views, which include believing that acknowledging same-sex marriage would help end stigma against gays and lesbians, “are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality.”

It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to this latest criticism of a nun and to see who the Vatican targets next.

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