The Secret War on Condoms
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, NY Times, Jan 10, 2003
Three thousand years ago an amorous Egyptian couple (probably libidinous
liberals) experimented with a linen pouch, producing the world's first known
condom. Some right-wingers still haven't gotten over it.
Over the last few years conservative groups in President Bush's support base
have declared war on condoms, in a campaign that is downright weird - but
that, if successful, could lead to millions of deaths from AIDS around the wor
I first noticed this campaign last year, when I began to get e-mails from
evangelical Christians insisting that condoms have pores about 10 microns in
diameter, while the AIDS virus measures only about 0.1 micron. This is junk
science (electron microscopes haven't found these pores), but the
disinformation campaign turns out to be a far-reaching effort to discredit
condoms, squelch any mention of them in schools and discourage their use
"The only absolutely guaranteed, permanent contraception is castration," one
Catholic site suggests helpfully. Hmmmm. You first.
Then there are the radio spots in Texas: "Condoms will not protect people
from many sexually transmitted diseases."
A report by Human Rights Watch quotes a Texas school official as saying: "We
don't discuss condom use, except to say that condoms don't work."
I'm all for abstinence education, and there is some evidence that promoting
abstinence helps delay and reduce sexual contacts both in the U.S. and
abroad. But young people have been busily fornicating ever since sex was
invented, in 1963 (as the poet Philip Larkin calculated), and disparaging
condoms is far more likely to discourage their use than to discourage sex.
The upshot will be more gonorrhea and AIDS among young Americans - and,
abroad, many more people dying young.
So far President Bush has not fully signed on to the campaign against
condoms, but there are alarming signs that he is clambering on board. Last
month at an international conference in Bangkok, U.S. officials demanded the
deletion of a recommendation for "consistent condom use" to fight AIDS and
sexual diseases. So what does this administration stand for? Inconsistent
Then there was the Condom Caper on the Web site of the Centers for Disease
Control. A fact sheet on condoms was removed in July 2001 and, eventually,
replaced by one that emphasized that they may not work.
"The Bush administration position basically condemns people to death by
H.I.V./AIDS," said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's
Health Coalition. "And we're talking about tens of millions of people."
Evangelical groups do superb work in Africa, running clinics for some of the
world's most wretched people - like poor AIDS victims. So it's baffling to
see these same groups buying into junk science in ways that will lead to many
more AIDS deaths.
(The scientific consensus is simple: Condoms are far from perfect, but they
greatly reduce the risk of H.I.V. and of gonorrhea for men, and they probably
also reduce the risk of other sexual infections - but more studies are needed
to prove the case definitively. See, for example, the National Institutes for
Health report at
One study by the University of California at Berkeley found condom
distribution to be astonishingly cost-effective, costing just $3.50 per year
of life saved. In contrast, antiretroviral therapy cost almost $1,050.
Yet the U.S. is now donating only 300 million condoms annually, down from
about 800 million at the end of the first President Bush's term. Consider
Botswana, which has the highest rate of H.I.V. infection in the world - 39
percent of adults. According to figures in a report on condoms by Population
Action International, the average man in Botswana gets less than one condom
per year from international donors.
In the time it has taken to read this column, 28 people have died of AIDS,
including 5 children. An additional 49 people have become infected. It's
imperative that we get over our squeamishness, accept that condoms are flawed
but far better than nothing, recognize that condoms no more cause sex than
umbrellas cause rain, and ensure that couples in places like Botswana get
more than one condom per year.