Morality vs. Reality


In light of the recent inflammatory comments made by the Pope, there is an important discussion to be had about the discourse of morality with respect to HIV. The Pope’s statement was not surprising knowing the position taken by the Catholic church on artificial contraception. However, it is still extremely shocking for many of us to hear recognizing the toll that HIV/AIDS continues to take on our continent. With all due respect to the Papacy and the Catholic community that has been hard at work alleviating the impact of the disease, there are serious problems with an anti-condom message.

First of all, if we are going to make a moral issue about condom use, we have to talk about how HIV/AIDS has been constructed as a disease of ‘immorality.’ No matter how one contracts the virus — whether it is through sex work, intravenous drug use, rape, male to male sex or by any other non-stigmatized way — the disease is just so loaded with this discourse of immorality and deviance. This is one of the major barriers to dealing with AIDS in the first place, and it is a major barrier in sub-Saharan Africa where Christianity is so strong. It affects how those who are infected are treated, and it affects the way HIV interventions are carried out. One of former Pres. George W. Bush’s most positive legacies was the PEPFAR (US President’s Fund for Emergency AIDS Relief) program which has made great contributions towards AIDS relief in Africa. Despite its successes, PEPFAR has been criticized for its strong abstinence approach.  The countries outside Africa which have had the most success in controlling HIV infection are the ones who have separated the discourse of morality from the discourse of harm reduction. This is something that we in Africa need to seriously focus on if we are going to be more effective in tackling the disease.

Secondly, we cannot have a discussion about HIV without talking about vulnerability: women remain the most vulnerable group on the continent. It is a well-known fact that one of the most significant risk factors for HIV infection among women and young girls in Africa is marriage. This is a fact which the church cannot ignore and in my opinion, demands more attention than a message on abstinence before marriage. Sooner or later the Pope will also have to make an important verdict on whether serodiscordant couples where one person is already infected should use condoms or not. The interesting thing is that if he rules this to be okay (for harm reduction purposes), the whole condom debate will turn into a complete paradox.

As it is, it is difficult to get those who need to be using (male or female) condoms to let go of any related stigmas they may have and to use them correctly and consistently. That is an important area of work for many social marketing organizations who continue to press the message of consistent safe sex practices. More importantly, the negotiation of condom use between men and women is even more complicated and that is a problem that women within marriages are often faced with as research in this area has shown. From a human rights perspective, to say that condoms aggravate HIV infection is an assault on those who are trying to protect themselves from infection, sub-Saharan women in particular. The implications of unsafe sex extend beyond HIV infection and the sexual health of African women will continue to deteriorate if such anti-safety messages are taken seriously.

Of course abstinence only programs can have their successes but they will only work if the church wants to change the entire moral and social fabric of society, such that being married does not make you more susceptible to HIV infection in the first place, because clearly even marriage does not protect everyone from infection. In the end, we cannot rely on ‘morals’ to translate into safe behaviour in every case. The reality is that there are people having unsafe sex with multiple partners and the goal of practical interventions such as condoms is to promote safety and reduce harm for all regardless.

More articles of interest:

Abstinence: The Immaculate Contraception

Does ‘CNN’ (Condoms, Needles, Negotiation) Work Better than ‘ABC’ (Abstinence, Being Faithful and Condom Use) in Attacking the AIDS Epidemic?


~ by misswretched on March 21, 2009.

7 Responses to “Morality vs. Reality”

  1. Interesting post! Thank you for visiting my blog. Sounds like we have some views in common. I’ll return to your blog again. Simon

  2. First time around here.

    Trouble with taking religion giants head on is that they can make you feel kind of unholy. Like how can you dare argue with the men of God? But not any more. This time it’s clear the pope and his people have overstepped the boundary and have ridiculed themselves by living in their utopian world.

  3. Thanks Simon, we definitely agree on this.

    Shiko, you are very right. It’s so hard to argue with our ‘moral’ leaders who are supposed to be guiding us but the truth is our societies are not perfect. We must deal with these things as they are.

  4. Good insight my dear. Unfortunately you are preaching to the choir. You made a very interesting point when discussing serodiscordant couples, and the pope’s silence on this matter. I think it’s a shame that the leader’s of the catholic church refuse to have an enlightened discussion on this subject. Burying their heads in the sand and refusing to see this epidemic for what it truly is is a detriment. Society was not what it was 2000+ years ago, and although I don’t think the religion shoud abandon its tenents, it should re-evaulate them to reflect and help guide today’s society. But I’m sure even hinting at that is reason enough for one to be ex-communicated from the church!

  5. I know DCM, I agree with you. I don’t know how the church as an institituion can go about making changes but on issues such as these, it’s time that they do.

  6. The point you make about marriage being a risk factor for women contracting HIV is one I hadn’t even considered. Being married doesn’t make you immune to HIV/AIDS, and that’s a point that really needs to be spelled out for the Catholic Church… their whole argument is falling apart (as if it hasn’t already)!

  7. […] sexual divide is the same divide that maintains other problems. Polygamy is still legal in Kenya, women continue to be disproportionately infected with HIV within marriage, and women still face violence for not cooperating as their husbands […]

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