Reasoning with the unreasonable: Pope, condoms, and HIV

A group of scientists from Mexico (Catholic population: >90%) have written a nice letter to Teh Pope in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Its brilliant because its so simple and straightforward in its reasoning why Teh Pope should support condom use.

The Pope, condoms, and the evolution of HIV

Lets pretend we live in a magical world, where everyone who is infected with HIV-1 has access to any and all antiretrovirals they need, at no cost. Scientists will still need to be working round the clock to develop new anti-HIV drugs, because HIV-1 can always figure out a way to be resistant to our drugs and highly fit.

Clinical data show that in some parts of Europe and the Americas one of every ten newly infected people has an HIV strain that is already resistant to one or more groups of antiretrovirals. Unfortunately, the list now includes primary infections in which multidrug-resistant HIV subtypes have been reported. The unavoidable conclusion is that sooner or later we will observe resistance to even the most efficient combinations of antiretrovirals, with all the clinical and epidemiological adverse consequences.

Know how we can shut this nightmare down? CONDOMS.

BONUS: Condoms are not a selective pressure on HIV-1. Viruses dont move on their own. They dont swim. Or fly. Or tap dance. They need semen/secretions to be transferred between partners. Know what stops that? CONDOMS.

The Vatican must understand that, in purely darwinian terms, HIV will never evolve resistance to condoms.

Preach abstinence. Insist your followers be faithful to their partners. Fine! But dont say stupid shit like this about condoms, Teh Pope!

Now that these scientists from one of the Catholicists countries in the world have made such reasonable, nonthreatening arguments for their case, Im sure Teh Pope will understand the implications of what he has done, and will be reversing his stance any second now.



More like this

Okay, so like, we suck at making HIV-1 vaccines. Im trying to make our vaccines more logical/efficacious/etc, but right now, we suck. No HIV-1 vaccine. There are other ways to prevent HIV-1 infection via sex-- like condoms. YAY! HIV-1 doesnt 'swim'. It doesnt move on its own. It has to be…
Huh. ERV, August 5, 2009--Maybe we just need to fr*me things differently-- Condoms arent 'birth control', theyre 'HIV/AIDS control, with unavoidable (but reversible) pregnancy reduction as a side-effect, like chemotherapy for cancer'. Teh Pope, November 20, 2010--While he will restate the Catholic…
I am, in no way, a 'fan' of using anti-retroviral drugs in uninfected individuals as a way to prevent HIV.  I think its a terrible idea that will result in more drug resistant HIV (already an issue before this idea was implemented) and ridiculous considering everyone who needs anti-retrovirals to…
Gawd I love doing HIV-1 research. Stuff that takes big-stuff-biologists millions of years to watch, we can figure out in a few weeks. Case in point: PZs post yesterday on 'latent evolutionary potential'. Ah, the realization of latent evolutionary potential. Did you know that you have latent…

In the Pope's mind artificial birth control is a sin and no matter how effective a condom might be a sin can never be a solution to anything. As they say, "the wages of sin is death." Utilitarian arguments are pointless against a dogmatic idealist who thinks that your true existence only occures after you die.

Maybe we just need to fr*me things differently-- Condoms arent 'birth control', theyre 'HIV/AIDS control, with unavoidable (but reversible) pregnancy reduction as a side-effect, like chemotherapy for cancer'.

Masking the intent won't make any difference. Any device that makes sex, in their terms, less "open to life" is in effect a form of birth control and must not be used. Hell, they don't even approve of the rhythym method. Pleasure without the possibility of procreation is part of "The Culture of Death [tm]" and cannot be condoned. Better not have sex at all.

Hmm. The first time I encountered the weirdness of the Catholic church about sex was when I was in grad school more than 30 years ago. I went out a few times with one of my fellow students, who was from a devout Catholic family.

According to her, her priest said that any pre- or extramarital sex was sinful, but there were varying degrees of sin. For an unmarried couple, in order from least to most sinful, these were:

1. Ordinary vaginal sex. (She didn't say so, but presumably missionary position was preferred.)

2. Anal sex (apparently because there was little hope of conception).

3. Fellatio (she said the priest claimed this was very bad because it was cannibalism; he apparently took no position on cunnilingus).

4. Any type of sex using contraception (because the couple was intentionally trying to interfere with god's will).

I was stunned when she told me all this, not because of the priest's stupid non-logic, but that a priest would ever have had this conversation with a young woman.

@ericb: the Catholic Church has no problem with the Rhythm Method. In fact, it often promotes it (sometimes as a way to know when is best to try to be like bunnies and sometimes to keep the baby bun-buns away).

Lisa, I remember arguments on a Catholic Board where there were some traditionalists who insisted that Natural Family Planning was NOT the rhythm method (which they considered as bad as contraceptives). I'll admit that their logic as to why escaped me but that's where I got the idea.

with unavoidable (but reversible) pregnancy reduction as a side-effect, like chemotherapy for cancer'.

Unfortunately this is the same organisation that beätified a woman for dying after refusing chemo, because it would damage her foetus.

Someone should spike the Vatican hosts with hiv - too bad it doesn't infect orally.

The Roman Catholic Death Cult is against all forms of birth control because they threaten to slow the impoverishment of the poor. Theirs is a growth industry, but since they're recruiting is nearly hopeless, they have to grow their own new members. From infancy.

By Rose Colored Glasses (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

So far Ratzo has not cited the Humanae Vitae of Paul VI and it is odd to go past a couple of encyclicals without that but it is apparent from his remarks in Africa that he is going to....they all do.

That is where the rhythm method confusion comes from. It is generally overlooked in a marital context now because "openness to life" and "fostering marital love" became legally equivalent ecclesiastic goals in 1968.

Lunar calendars were demonic tools 42 years ago, condoms aint gonna happen.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

I'm just curious as to how a religion that CLAIMS to be Morally Righteoustm can advocate such a medieval policy. It is akin to screaming "I'm a nice person" while beating an senior citizen with Alzheimer's and osteoporosis with a 30 oz. aluminum baseball bat.

"I'm just curious as to how a religion that CLAIMS to be "Morally Righteoustm can advocate such a medieval policy."

Sorry to be a nit pick but is more of an late 18th century and beyond policy, the medieval church was all about the devil.

The height of the Church's obsession with birth control was in the thirties with CASTI CONNUBII.

As a former medieval collection curator I can promise you, if you are digging up a medieval midden heap and not finding pessaries, it's a monastery AND you aren't looking close enough.

Everybody grew asafoetida and wild carrot and it wasn't cause they taste good. Blech.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

Jared: What Rose Colored Glasses said.

It's simple math, really. More babies equals more Catholics. More Catholics equals ... well, I'm not sure, exactly; I gave up Catholocism for Lent last year and haven't been back since.

The fellatio equals cannibalism link is a weird argument for a priest to use, given the nature of the Eucharist. ...

By mediajackal (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

The most effective way to avoid contracting HIV or any other STD is to confine your sexual activities to raping young children. This is the method employed by the priesthood, and it has been very successfuly in keeping infection rates down among Catholic clergy.

Ericb wrote:

I remember arguments on a Catholic Board where there were some traditionalists who insisted that Natural Family Planning was NOT the rhythm method (which they considered as bad as contraceptives). I'll admit that their logic as to why escaped me but that's where I got the idea.

Just to confirm Lisa's observation, I went to both Catholic grade school and high school and the rhythm method was indeed the only officially acceptable method of birth control suggested to us. The reason being that the rhythm method is extremely unreliable so there was a high likelihood of the woman conceiving anyway. Seriously, the reasoning was that fucked up. You have to leave at least a chance of accidental pregnancy, otherwise you're thwarting god's will or some such nonsense.

I clicked the link to the article titled "The Pope, condoms, and the evolution of HIV." One of the related links was on that web page was The Pope, condoms, and HI: Why the Pope may be right:

Indeed, in an interview with, Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard, agreed with the Pope[5]:

The best evidence we have shows that condoms do not work as an intervention intended to reduce HIV infection rates in Africa ... What we see in fact is an association between greater condom use and higher infection rates ... We are seeing HIV decline in at least 8 or 9 countries in Africa. In every case the proportion of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners has decreased a few . . .

So, what is this all about? I don't have access to the full text. Can someone explain the gist of this article in terms that a laic like myself can understand. Is the latter based on poor evidence? Is the article flawed, if so in what way?

By Anonymouse (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

As a former Catholic, I enjoy it when the pope says stupid shit, because it validates my view that the whole hierarchy is completely out of touch. But then I realize two things. One, Teh Faithful don't care, because they'll keep going to church and keep contributing, no matter how stupid the Pope's words. Two, as PZ said, this is a lie that will kill people, and there's no enjoyment in such a stupid assertion.

Wouldn't you expect to see an association between greater condom use and higher infection rates?

Higher infection rates -> more people perceive a problem -> more education about STDs and how to prevent them -> more condom use.

Higher infection rates -> more people perceive a problem -> more availability of condoms -> more condom use.

By Douglas McClean (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

Abbie's right about the stupidity of banning condoms, but anal sex is especially dangerous, despite its widespread promotion and condoms are not safe then. Isn't that one reason why HIV is rampant in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Chastity is wiser and safer, for much stronger reasons than HIV transmission alone.

By charles soper (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink

Charles, it is far more realistic to try to convince men in Africa to use condoms than it would be to try to convince them to be chaste and only have sex with one partner. You'd be fighting a longstanding cultural practice as well as one of the most powerful biological urges at the same time.

I also question your assertion that condoms are not safe for anal sex. My understanding is that they are slightly less effective at STD protection for anal sex than vaginal sex, but they are still a lot more effective than using nothing.

Anonymouse-- Thats all there is to that letter. Thats it. Can you read the comments associated with that 'defense' of Teh Pope? Oh, I hope you can read the comments! Theyre juicy! McCarthy quotemined Green, and got called on it.

Apparently, Anthony McCarthy works for "Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics". Their mission "... exists to help Catholics and others to explore the Church's position on bioethical issues." This means that he has a competing interest, and should not have been allowed to publish that letter, any more than someone who works at a pharmaceutical company would be allowed to write a letter 'defending' a botched drug.

I will comb over some papers for you (all of us), but I assure you there is no physical way for condoms to increase HIV-1 transmission, as Teh Pope and McCarthy suggest.

While I fully agree that the Catholic church is almost completely wrong in its attitude to sex (barring such obvious things like marital fidelity), I don't think they bear such a big burden of blame for HIV and STDs in general as it is spoken of them. The thing is, in many strongly Catholic countries the RC church position on condoms is ignored. I come from Poland, and I know very well that most Catholic families have 2-3 children at most. It is obvious that they use some effective contraception. The situation is different in African or Latin American countries, where the Catholic teaching resonates with the traditional male attitude to sex, which excludes contraception and, in the case of Africa, encourages infidelity and having sex without a condom even when you know you've got HIV.

I do wish the Pope and his followers could at least be honest about it. They don't want people using condoms at all, under any circumstances whatsoever. Whether they're effective in reducing rates of HIV transmission is of no interest to them.

Yes, if everyone would just be chaste and faithful, HIV wouldn't be a problem. Abstinence is 100% effective...if you don't get raped.
News flash! People aren't going to stop having premarital sex, sex for fun, gay sex, and sex with people to whom they are not married.
The pope's position is pretty much the same as "if people would just be nice to eachother, there would be no war. Niceness is the only 100% effective way to stop war! Therefore, UN peacekeeping is a sin because if people fighting really wanted to stop the suffering of themselves and their loved ones, they'd be nice to eachother. Since they won't, they deserve what they get and any sort of peacekeeping or negotiation is approprating fate from god!"

By Scrabcake (not verified) on 05 Aug 2009 #permalink


"Note also that the Catholic Church has only been ok with rhythm methods since the 1850s. At least the Church came that far."

Sorry Joshua, but its kinda my thing. Pius IX didn't talk about the rhythm method at all. He was the Luddite clerical anti-commie smack down pope.

The church did a bang up job of generalized condemnations of birth control and being murky on the rhythm method until around 1930 with Pius XI (the one who made Hitler's birthday a German Catholic holiday) saying full stop to everything, calendars are evil too.

The commission only takes the gloves back off the rhythm method again in 1966 and it is confirmed by Paul VI's encyclical in 1968.

Now someone tell me I'm pretty for having read all the freakin encyclicals (including the damned anti-popes) so nobody else has to.

If anybody is that interested, the giant encyclical archive is online now in six or seven languages.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 06 Aug 2009 #permalink

Heres the link to the full article behind the contentious quotation posted by anonymous above.
I think the reasoning behind it was that condoms were not used widely enough in Africa for cultural reasons (they are thought to be associated with prostitution so people refuse to use them in other relationships) so the best current solution to reducing infection rates is to encourage behavioral changes (less partners, remaining celibate etc).

The thing about condoms, as you all know, is that their primary purpose is to prevent babies. The secondary goal of disease prevention has become more important in the face of the epidemic, and other benefits that follow these two goals (better general health and poverty reduction) are undeniably good things.
What gets me is not that a straight-up evil org as the church favours evil against all good, well duh, but that so-called traditional attitudes do so too.
There's a level of base animal instinct that equates more babies to good life that is objectively just not true anymore.
Makes me wonder if, in another few generations, such attitudes won't have died out.

The thing about condoms, as you all know, is that their primary purpose is to prevent babies. The secondary goal of disease prevention...

So I checked Wikipedia, and it confirms my suspicion (with sources cited ibid.) that what Eddie thinks 'you all know' is, historically, not really the case:

Fallopio's treatise [De Morbo Gallico, 1564] is the earliest uncontested description of condom use: it describes linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution and allowed to dry before use. The cloths he described were sized to cover the glans of the penis, and were held on with a ribbon. Fallopio claimed that an experimental trial of the linen sheath demonstrated protection against syphilis.

After this, the use of penis coverings to protect from disease is described in a wide variety of literature throughout Europe. The first indication that these devices were used for birth control, rather than disease prevention, is the 1605 theological publication De iustitia et iure (On justice and law) by Catholic theologian Leonardus Lessius, who condemned them as immoral.

In Catholic parts of Europe and Catholic communities in other developed countries, nobody cares (in practice, as measured by birth rates) what the Pope says about the evils of contraception. It's a pretty broad community (at least, it looked that way when I was growing up in it). Allowing condom use for disease prevention (whatever the side-effects) would be the biggest bit of positive PR for the church in 2000 years, as well as saving millions of lives. But apparently it won't happen. Objective Evil.

By John Scanlon, FCD (not verified) on 08 Aug 2009 #permalink

well atleast the church still has some class. compaired to this. I know plently of people with stds that got them even with the use of condoms. further more people arent dogs, i am happy to say i am apart of a church that still believe in the humanity of people and has great faith in the fact people have the right to chose for themselfs if it really is a smart idea to have sex with someone with HIV or if they should wait and save them selves. and on that note who has really been made truelly happy by sleeping around and getting herpes ? there is plenty more catholic married people that waited that are very happy so its not like the church is raining on your parade its protecting you.