Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cardinal Pell in The Sydney Morning Herald, writing about condoms and H.I.V.

Graciously, The Sydney Morning Herald has given His Eminence The Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney the opportunity to reply, in that paper’s op-ed pages, to Mr. David Marr’s criticism of the support that Cardinal Pell offered H.H. The Pope in an interview for Sky News the other week. Cardinal Pell cites several reputable sources—including Science, The British Medical Journal and even U.N.A.I.D.S.—to substantiate the Holy Father’s much-disputed remark. Of particular interest was Cardinal Pell’s quotation from The British Medical Journal:

Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal reported: "In numerous large studies, concerted efforts to promote use of condoms has consistently failed to control rates of sexually transmitted infection", even in Canada, Sweden and Switzerland.
Cardinal Pell also makes the following observation:

To blame Catholics and Pope Benedict for the spread of HIV/AIDS requires proof that while people are ignoring the first, essential Christian requirement to be chaste before and within marriage, they are slavishly obedient to a second requirement not to use condoms. I doubt anyone thinks that is realistically the case.
But Cardinal Pell’s citations did little to placate correspondents to the Herald’s letters pages. One Peter Foster began thus:

It appears George Pell ("Choice, not condoms, makes the difference with AIDS", April 18-19) has forgotten about duty of care and responsibility for harm minimisation being part of the traditional Christian ethic.
‘Forgotten about duty of care’? What nonsense. And as for ‘harm minimisation’, I’ll say it again: the principle of lesser evil (or, in words that Mr. Foster might prefer, minimal harm) is that one may permit the lesser of two evils—that’s permit, never do, because in natural law it is axiomatic that one may never do evil, even when it’s in order to procure a greater good or avert a greater evil.

In the next paragraph of Mr. Foster’s letter he says

Condom use helps prevent/reduce infection transmission among people who are active sexually. Therefore it is responsible to encourage condom use to help minimise harm.
Non sequitur; unconditional encouragement of condom use necessarily implies encouragement of sex with, presumably, someone who either has H.I.V./A.I.D.S. or whose sexual history is so suspect that one ought to presume that he or she has H.I.V./A.I.D.S., and this is hardly responsible advice.

Then Mr. Foster says that

While total abstinence may be zero risk, it is not effective if people do not feel able to take it up as an alternative.
But, for the umpteenth time, abuse does not detract from use. By the same logic one shouldn’t bother to promote condom use because, for whatever reason, paramours might not end up bothering to use them.

Another letter, from one Peter Robinson, began just as badly as Mr. Foster’s, but is worth reproducing here for the bizarre analogy that it contains:

Cardinal Pell cannot rest the papal condom case on scholarship or evidence. His claim that sexual abstinence or fidelity reduces the spread of HIV/AIDS does not imply that condoms increase it. If the Pope is right about condoms' effectiveness, surgeons will have to abandon latex gloves to reduce the likelihood of transmitting bugs. If latex won't work on a lone phallus, what chance does it have against 10 digits with nails on the tips?

Peter Robinson Ainslie (ACT)
So Mr. Robinson simply asserts that “Cardinal Pell cannot rest the papal condom case on scholarship or evidence”, despite the fact that His Eminence cited several pieces of scholarship or evidence!, and Mr. Robinson fails to provide any counter-citations. And his strange analogy, presumably some kind of attempt at wit, is invalid because the risks involved in surgery are (one expects) proportionate to the expected benefits, which cannot be said of sex, whether condomised or uncondomised, with H.I.V.-positive people.

A contribution to the next day’s Herald’s letters page proved no more damaging to Cardinal Pell’s case than the two letters already cited here, despite the fact that it came from Prof. Andrew Grulich, of the H.I.V. Epidemiology and Prevention Program at U.N.S.W. It begins amusingly enough:

The Catholic Church has long held a doctrinal position forbidding condom use. However, Cardinal George Pell now attempts a scientific justification ("Choice, not condoms, makes the difference with AIDS", April 18-19). His review of the science of the efficacy of condoms in preventing HIV was one-sided, partial and biased.
(my emphasis)
And how does Prof. Grulich rectify this imbalance? With a little one-sidedness, partiality and bias of his own. He asserts that “Condoms are the most effective real-life response in HIV prevention.” So abstinence and fidelity aren’t ‘real-life’ responses? What condoms are is an effective white-flag response: run up the white flag and encourage people—not just permit, but actively encourage people—to put themselves at risk of contracting a fatal disease.

Prof. Grulich goes on to cite a curious body of research in support of his views:

There are dozens of studies that follow initially HIV negative people for years. The best of these have been of young couples, often married, in which one is HIV positive and one is HIV negative. In these studies, HIV negative people who use condoms consistently and correctly rarely become HIV infected. In other couples, a large proportion become HIV infected.
But if one is H.I.V.-positive then the last thing that a decent human being would do is put one’s own spouse at risk of becoming H.I.V.-positive too. And the very fact that the H.I.V.-positive status was known means that there can be no excuse. Prof. Grulich finds it necessary to point out that “[i]n other couples, a large proportion become HIV infected”. Well, yes, you have sex with H.I.V.-positive people, you’re going to become H.I.V-positive yourself; no surprises there. But neither Cardinal Pell nor H.H. The Pope have advised anyone to have sex with H.I.V.-positive people at all, so that is an irrelevant basis for comparison.

Prof. Grulich concludes by citing the pro-condom views of the World Health Organisation. Nowhere in his letter, though, does he challenge the findings of Harvard senior research scientist Prof. Edward C. Green that support the contention of Cardinal Pell and the Holy Father.

Reginaldvs Cantvar
Feast of St. George, Martyr, A.D. 2009

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