Faith and the business of AIDS

Nikki Kahn THE WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON, DC, JULY 24: Aaron M. Laxton, joined a few thousand activists and protesters in … Continued

Nikki Kahn


WASHINGTON, DC, JULY 24: Aaron M. Laxton, joined a few thousand activists and protesters in a march to the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 24, 2012. The overarching theme of the protests called for an end to AIDS.

This week, 25,000 people from all over the globe descended on Washington, D.C., to undertake one of the biggest challenges of our time: find a way to halt the AIDS epidemic and provide quality care to everyone who has been affected by it. Some of the people with the most to contribute will be the ones who have watched the virus devastate their families, communities and countries, robbing a generation of their teachers and more than 16 million children of one or more of their parents. The losses are so huge that perhaps the biggest threat is passivity: accepting the HIV/AIDS landscape as we know it without question.

But there is a secret, a hidden backstory that many conference attendees don’t know about. Some faith-based organizations (FBOs) like those run by the Catholic hierarchy are continuing business as usual, bringing in enormous funds—often from taxpayers—for the AIDS programs that they run, but not providing comprehensive services. The bit they leave out? Condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. And these organizations are counting on nobody drawing attention to this omission.

Ironically, one of the blessings the AIDS movement has to be thankful for today—that people are living longer, healthier lives with the virus thanks to antiretrovirals —brings with it something many FBOs don’t want to confront: the sexual lives of those affected by the virus and the health of their future partners. No sensible solution omits condoms, but the Catholic hierarchy keeps coming up with labyrinthine justifications for its rejection of condoms in HIV/AIDS care. With more than 34 million people living with the virus worldwide, it simply doesn’t make sense for governments and funders to back providers who are more committed to an extremist religious position than they are to the individuals they are entrusted to care for.

There is a crucial distinction at work: faith-based ministry makes perfect sense. Ministry implies a calling, a need to give generously of oneself to a worthy cause. People living with HIV/AIDS deserve this kind of deep commitment to their well-being, and it’s a worthwhile investment of tax dollars. Logistically, FBOs do make sense in AIDS relief work because they tend to already have the infrastructure, leadership and community trust, where other service providers or governments sometimes don’t.

Unfortunately, some governments have recognized these strengths and ceded their own responsibilities for community welfare. This leaves churches in some developing nations, such as Kenya and Uganda, in control of huge aspects of the health-care business with little to no accountability. Catholic health-care systems account for over 25 percent of AIDS care worldwide, much of it occurring in just these kinds of power vacuums. It is criminal for a sole provider in an entire region to take relief funding—from Norway, Sweden, the UK, the US or anywhere else—without giving vulnerable people access to condoms. Having failed to convince Catholics in the pews to reject condoms the bishops use their grip on health-care provision, paid for by taxpayers, to exert control over access to condoms.

The pope has already established that condoms prevent HIV.

But it looks like the bishops weren’t listening. Last September, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a laundry list of demands they want the government to accede to. Its Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty declared that the religious freedom of 272 bishops was at stake if Catholic social service agencies were required to provide condoms with the government funds they receive for providing AIDS care. Plain and simple, the bishops are trying to put pressure on US politicians in an election year to give them a free pass on condoms while keeping the government funds flowing to their coffers.

View Photo Gallery: Images of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, by Washington Post photographers.

It seems as though the bishops are motivated more by what makes them comfortable (avoiding an HIV-positive person’s sexuality) or promoting an idea that Catholics around the world think they got wrong (most Catholics believe that using condoms is prolife) than ministering to the sick, or the well living with HIV. True ministry is more concerned with the health and well-being of others than imagined infringements on one’s own religious “freedom.”

We welcome FBOs in the ongoing fight against the worldwide epidemic, but now aged 30 the AIDS movement has gained some maturity. Activists examine motives, scientific evidence and outcomes for every program, no matter who administers it. Help in the fight against HIV/AIDS should never come at such a high cost for the most vulnerable, as the refusal by some religious groups to distribute condoms does. If advocates have managed to discover the secrets behind the funding FBOs receive, then funders can only be a step behind.

To ensure that these issues were drawn to the attention of those with the ability to do something about it, Catholics for Choice commissioned a report on this issue, called Seeing is Believing.

View Photo Gallery: As the International AIDS Conference meets this week in Washington, we collect columnist Michael Gerson’s articles on the disease.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice and the leader of the Condoms4Life campaign.

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