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Human sexuality:

Condoms: Life savers or killers?

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Quotations:

bullet"Condoms kill." Statement on a poster by pro-lifers demonstrating in front of a Red Cross office in Salt Lake City, UT.
bulletThe real public health question is not are condoms 100% effective, but rather, how can we more effectively use condoms to help prevent the spread of disease." AIDS Research Institute. 1
bullet"...don't buy the 'safe sex' lie - it can kill you. The only 'safe sex' is no sex until marriage. You?re worth it - don't let anyone tell you you're not!" Quoted in "Condoms - Do They Really Work?," by AbortionFacts.com 2
bullet"Condoms are...up to 99.9 percent effective in reducing the risk of STD transmission when combined with spermicide." SIECUS fact sheet. 3

Confused? Read on!

"Condom wars:"

Conflicts about condoms between public health officials and spokespersons for some conservative Christian organizations flare up from time to time.

In 1987, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop publicly recommended that people use condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV, which develops in to AIDS. Some conservative Christian organizations attacked his stance. Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum accused him of promoting "safe fornication with condoms" as "a cover-up for the homosexual community." Conservative anti-tobacco advocate and a close colleague of Koop defended the Surgeon General. She said: "I hate to be in a public debate with Phyllis Schlafly, since we have a lot of things in common. But she is wrong about Dr. Koop....In everything I've read in Dr. Koop's written speeches, he stresses monogamy as the first line of defense against AIDS." 17

The same debate broke out in early 2002 about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

bulletMany of the leading Fundamentalist Christian organizations stated or implied that condoms are almost completely useless at preventing STD transmission. This belief was clearly expressed during a demonstration at Red Cross office in Salt Lake City, UT, during the 2002 Winter Olympics. A pro-life demonstrator held a poster which said, simply: "Condoms kill."
bulletMost Public health officials, religious liberals, gays, lesbians, human sexuality researchers, physicians, STD personnel, etc., strongly advocate the use of condoms or latex dental dams during sexual activity. They feel that, properly used, they are effective in preventing the transmission of STDs.

The debate surfaced in the media during 2002-FEB because of a series of events:

  1. The free distribution of condoms to visitors and athletes at the 2002 Winter Olympics, by a coalition of groups, including the Red Cross.
  2. Demonstrations by pro-life and conservative Christian groups against these two condom distribution programs.
  3. The withdrawal of the Red Cross from the coalition.
  4. A televised statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell to youths, aged 17 to 25, in which he strongly advocated that:
    bulletYoung people should remain celibate.
    bulletThat those who choose to be sexually active use condoms to prevent the spread of HIV (which leads to AIDS) and other STDs.
  5. Reactions by the conservative Christian community to these events.

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Diversity of opinion -- an overview:

Speaking generally:

bulletReligious conservatives typically recommend a multi-point process for youth sexual behavior:
bulletSchool sex-ed classes should only teach about abstinence. They should not teach that students who engage in sexual activity before marriage use safer sex techniques, because sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral.
bulletThe only acceptable sexual choice for unmarried people is celibacy.
bulletPersons with a heterosexual or bisexual orientation must delay their first sexual experience until after they are legally married to a person of the opposite gender.
bullet Homosexuals must remain celibate for life.

If everyone met these requirements, then the STD threat to young people would essentially end within a matter of years. Numerous biblical texts, particularly in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) reinforce this approach. Paul wrote extensively about remaining celibate until marriage in some of his epistles.

Adding STD and pregnancy prevention information to school sex-ed classes sends students a double message -- that they should be celibate and that they should use condoms during sexual activity. This results in confusion. If young people are taught that they can take measures to avoid STDs and pregnancy, then they will become much more sexually active. They will also initiate their first sexual activity sooner in life.

In early 2002, some of the larger conservative Christian groups added a new component to their messages about youth sexual behavior: that condoms are ineffective at preventing STD transmission. They feel that access to condoms and to information about condoms will cause increased sexual activity, because young people will mistakenly believe that they are protected from pregnancy and STDs. Since they feel that condoms are ineffective at preventing STDs, they conclude that the result will be more unwanted pregnancies, more abortions, more STDs, and more deaths.

bulletReligious liberals, public health officials, and many others also promote abstinence as the only totally-reliable method of avoiding pregnancy and STD infection through sexual behavior. But, for those youth who have decided to become sexually active, they recommend the consistent and knowledgeable care and use of condoms. They note that students are, on average, becoming sexually active at the age of 15 or 16 in the United States. Some sex-ed classes have been successful in delaying sexual behavior by many months or up to two years. However, by the time that they reach college, almost all youths have been sexually active. By the time of their first marriage (at age 27 for men and 25 for women), pre-marital sex is near universal. Over 90% of young people have become sexually active. 4 Sexually active youth need to know how to protect themselves against pregnancy and STDs. Otherwise, pregnancy rates will remain high, and many more young people will contract STDs. Some STDs, like AIDS, are currently incurable and eventually fatal.

Premarital celibacy was certainly promoted by Paul in some of his epistles. But he was addressing a very different, pre-scientific society. Today's situation is much different. In first century CE Palestine, abstinence was of great importance because there was no effective contraception techniques, no prevention methods for STDs, no effective medical treatments for any STDs, and the time interval between puberty and marriage was often measured in months -- not decades as in today's society.

Surveys have shown that inclusive sex-ed classes do not increase sexual behavior or encourage teens to become sexually active earlier. But students are motivated by the knowledge that they gain in class to make their sexual behavior safer. Easy access to condoms, and knowledge on how to use them properly, greatly reduce unwanted pregnancies and STD transmission. The result is fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions, fewer STDs, and fewer deaths.

It is not unusual for conservative Christians to take opposite positions from other groups. This is seen in the conflict between creation science and evolution, over the nature of homosexual and bisexual orientation, and concerning the morality of abortion, the death penalty, physician assisted suicide, etc.

Needless to say, groups on both sides of the condom conflict can cite studies to prove their beliefs.

Statements by conservative Christians about condoms:

There appears to be a consensus among conservative Christian groups that condoms are either completely ineffective, or are nearly useless at preventing STD transmission.

Spokespersons for many groups responded to the 2002 Winter Olympics condom giveaway, and to Colin Powell speech:

bulletGayle Ruzicka, spokesperson for the Utah Eagle Forum said: "Of course, [the condom suppliers are] not bothering to tell them that the majority of the [STDs] out there have nothing to do with whether you do or do not use a condom." 5
bulletA coalition of pro-life groups and Fundamentalist religious organizations held a series of protests against the condom distribution in Salt Lake City. Two demonstrations were held at the Greater Salt Lake Area chapter of the American Red Cross. 6 One of the pro-life posers read: "Condoms kill."
bulletJames Dobson, president and founder of the Fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family severely criticized Secretary of State Colin Powell for his recommendation to youth on an MTV program that if they are sexually active, they should use condoms. Dobson commented: "Colin Powell is the secretary of state, not the secretary of health. He is talking about a subject he doesn't understand. He clearly doesn't understand the science regarding condom efficacy... 7,8
bulletKen Conner, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), stated that Powell's comments were "reckless and irresponsible." 9 In a mailing to "Friends of Family Research Council" on 2002-FEB-15, Conner said: "Colin Powell is a respected role model. His irresponsible remarks could lead millions of young people to believe that condoms protect against STDs.  They do not...Telling young people they can engage in sexual conduct and avoid STDs by using condoms is like throwing someone a life preserver in a tidal wave." 10 Two days later, Conner seems to have slightly backed away from his earlier statement that implied that condoms were totally useless and ineffective. He wrote that "There are several sexually transmitted diseases condoms don't protect against." This would imply that condoms are effective protection against most STDs. He continued: "Secretary Powell, is promoting the lie that condoms 'protect' young people, giving them a false sense of security when they engage in life-threatening sexual behavior." 11
bulletOn 2002-FEB-20, Concerned Women for America (CWA) posted an essay criticizing what they described as Colin Powell's "advocacy of condom use by teenagers and tacit approval of pre-marital sex for teenagers." The CWA president, Sandy Rios, commented: "Last year, an NIH study on condoms showed that condoms were not found to provide universal protection from any of the eight sexually transmitted diseases (STD) tested, including, HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, chancroid, trichomoniasis, genital herpes, and human papilloma virus (HPV)." 12 It is unclear what CWA means by the term "universal protection." It is generally acknowledged that condoms are not perfect; they do have a small failure rate. In particular, HPV can be passed between sexual partners even if a condom is worn. This is because HPV can occasionally infect areas of the skin not covered by a condom.

Some Christian web sites have criticized the effectiveness of condoms since long before the 2002 Winter Games and Colin Powell events:

bulletA conservative Christian from Australia, identified only by his Email address (ttremeth@ozemail.com.au) wrote on his web site that: "Condoms are made from latex which comes from a tree. Look at it under a microscope and you will see it has pores. These pores are significantly larger than the AIDS virus. Have you ever heard the saying 'You could drive a truck through it?' " 13 (This Email is in error. There is no such thing as the AIDS virus. It is the HIV virus which is easily passed if a condom is not used; HIV leads to AIDS.
bulletHeritage House's "AbortionFacts.com" states that: "In one test, 33% (1/3) of the latex condoms leaked HIV sized particles!" Also, "...the breakage and slip off rate during use is so high [that] it makes condoms ineffective for protection against HIV." 2
bulletPro-Life America has an essay which includes selected physicians' quotes about condoms, including:
bulletDr. Robert Renfield, chief of retro-viral research, Walter Reed Army Institute: "Simply put, condoms fail. And condoms fail at a rate unacceptable for me as a physician to endorse them as a strategy to be promoted as meaningful AIDS protection."
bulletDr. Andre Lafrance, Canadian physician and researcher: "Relying on condoms for 'protection' can mean lifelong disease, suffering, and even death for you or for someone you love."
bulletDr. Teresa Crenshaw, member of the U.S. Presidential AIDS Commission and past president of the American Association of Sex Educators: "Saying that the use of condoms is 'safe sex' is in fact playing Russian roulette. A lot of people will die in this dangerous game." 14

The assault by some Christian web sites on the effectiveness of condoms has continued, after the 2002 Winter Games and Colin Powell events:

bulletFocus on the Family, a Fundamentalist Christian organization, reported that Rep. Dave Weldon, MD, (R-FL) said that condoms do virtually nothing to stop the spread of the human papilloma virus. 18
bulletTim Wildmon, spokesperson for the American Family Association, said: "We can't say 'Use condoms to prevent AIDS,' because condoms don't work." We need to communicate to the culture and to the world that biblical morality with respect to human sexuality is really the only true way to go to prevent disease." 19

Statements by public health groups about condoms:

One would almost think that public health groups and conservative Christians live in separate universes. Among the former, a consensus exists that condoms are essential in the prevention of STD transmission, among sexually active persons:

bulletThe Society for Human Sexuality says: "The single most effective thing you can do to stay healthy while being sexually active is to use latex condoms for intercourse (whether vaginal or anal)." 15
bulletPeer Health at Williams College in Williamstown Massachusetts informs fellow students that:
bullet"Condoms, along with dental dams, provide the best protection, save for abstinence, against sexually transmitted diseases including HIV."
bullet"They are highly effective when used in conjunction with another form of contraception, such as spermicidal foam, cream, jelly, sponge, or diaphragm."
bullet"When used with spermicide, latex not only blocks sperm and STD transmission, it kills both sperm and, at least in the laboratory, some STDs." 16
bulletThe AIDS Research Institute states that: "Using condoms can reduce the risk of infection of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, for those people who are not abstinent....The real public health question is not are condoms 100% effective, but rather, how can we more effectively use condoms to help prevent the spread of disease." 1
bulletThe Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) states that: "Condoms are...up to 99.9 percent effective in reducing the risk of STD transmission when combined with spermicide." 3

SIECUS tells "The Truth about Condoms:"

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) reproduces a year 2004 fact sheet on their web site in which they promote what they believe to be the "truth about condoms."

They say, in part:

bullet

"Condoms are a barrier method of contraception that, when used consistently and correctly, can prevent pregnancy by blocking the passage of semen into the vaginal canal. Condoms can also prevent the exchange of blood, semen, and vaginal secretions, which are the primary routes of STD transmission. In recent years, as a result of misinformation and insufficient research, the efficacy of condoms, especially in terms of STD prevention, has been debated in many forums. Research continues to show that condoms are one of the best methods of preventing unwanted pregnancy and are one of the only methods for sexually active individuals to protect themselves against STDs, including HIV."

bullet"Condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy when used consistently and correctly. The first-year effectiveness rate in preventing pregnancy among typical condom users on average is 86 percent. This includes pregnancies resulting from errors in condom use."
bullet

"Contraceptive Technology explains that 'only three of 100 couples who use condoms perfectly for one year will experience an unintended pregnancy'."

bullet

"Using a latex condom to prevent transmission of HIV is more than 10,000 times safer than not using a condom." 20

Disclaimer:

All information is general in nature and is not intended to be used as a substitute for appropriate professional advice.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Do condoms work?," Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, AIDS Research Institute, at: http://www.caps.ucsf.edu/condtext.html
  2. "Condoms - Do They Really Work?," AbortionFacts.com at: http://www.abortionfacts.com/literature/literature_9331cd.asp
  3. "Fact Sheets: The Truth About Latex Condoms," SIECUS, 1998-OCT-NOV, at: http://www.siecus.org/pubs/fact/fact0011.html
  4. 1996 figures quoted in a PBS essay at: http://www.pbs.org/fmc/book/4family1.htm
  5. Stuart Shepard, "Olympic Condom Giveaway Decried," Focus on the Family, 2002-FEB-11, at:  http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif
  6. Mary Pat Flaherty & Gilbert Gaul, "Red Cross Quits AIDS Effort: Abortion Foes Protested Condom Distribution at Olympics," Washington Post, 2002-FEB-22, Page D12. Online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/
  7. Pete Winn, "Powell pushes condoms to youth," Focus on the Family, 2002-FEB-15, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/feature/
  8. "Dobson Addresses Condom Effectiveness," 2002-FEB-24, Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/feature/a0019748.html
  9. "Powell backs condom comments," Associated Press, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/
  10. Ken Connor, "Powell's Reckless Remarks Put Young Lives at Risk," Family Research Council's Washington Update to "Friends of Family Research Council." 2002-FEB-15
  11. Ken Connor, "Safe-Sex "Pow-Wow!" Sends Mixed Messages to Public," Family Research Council's Washington Update to "Friends of Family Research  Council." 2002-FEB-18.
  12. "Powell Should Retract His Comments on Condoms," Concerned Women for America (CWA). 2002-FEB-20, at: http://www.cwfa.org/library/family/
  13. "Sex and Stuff: Sexually Transmitted Diseases," at: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~ttremeth/sex.html
  14. "Condom Warnings -- Beware!!!: Doctors speak out about condom failures!," Pro-Life America, at: http://www.prolife.com/CONDOMS.html
  15. "Guide to Safer Sex (Concise)," Society for Human Sexuality, at: http://www.sexuality.org/concise.html
  16. "Sex & Sexuality: Condoms and Dental Dams," Peer Health, Williams College, at: http://wso.williams.edu/orgs/peerh//sex/safesex/condom.html
  17. "Flying the Koop: A surgeon general's reputation on the line," PrWatch.org, at: http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/
  18. Bob Kellogg, "Lawmaker Targets Cervical Cancer," Focus on the Family, 2002-MAR-20, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/
  19. David Brody, "CDC: Many AIDS Carriers Unaware They Carry Virus," Focus on the Family, 2002-JUL-10, at:  http://www.family.org
  20. "The Truth About Condoms," SIECUS fact sheet, 2004, at: http://www.siecus.org/

Copyright © 2002 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-FEB-26
Latest update: 2006-APR-24  
Author: B.A. Robinson

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