Not So Safe
WASHINGTON — Warning: Safe sex is not so safe — and the Bush administration wants to make sure the public knows that.
“We are exploring new opportunities to best inform condom users about important limitations,” said Dr. Daniel Schultz, the director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiologic Health, during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.
Current labels on condom packages usually contain a warning that says if used properly, condoms will reduce the risk of the transmission of AIDS and many other sexually transmitted diseases.
By revising the warnings, Schultz said he hopes the end result is “a balanced view of the risks and benefits in condom labeling, being careful to neither encourage [condom] use in circumstances where it may not be medically appropriate nor to discourage device use in circumstances where it is.”
The new warnings should be completed later this year, he said.
The March 11 hearing examined the government's attempt to treat cervical cancer and prevent infection from human papillomavirus, the virus that causes it. Infection by certain strains of HPV is the primary cause of almost all cervical cancer, medical experts say.
HPV might not be as well known as HIV; however, it's just as deadly, according to the American Cancer Society. Each year, the same number of women — about 4,000 — die from AIDS as they do from cervical cancer. Currently, 20 million Americans are infected with HPV. Teens and young adults are particularly prone — approximately 4.6 million of the estimated 5.5 million Americans who become infected with HPV every year are between the ages of 15 and 24.
In reviewing data about HPV, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there was not enough evidence to recommend condoms as a means to prevent HPV infections, said Dr. Ed Thompson, the CDC's deputy director for public health services.
“It is clear condoms aren't 100% effective in preventing the human papillomavirus,” he said. “Our recommendations aren't new because we've always been saying — or we've been saying as long as I'm aware of it at CDC — that the only sure way to avoid STDs is through abstaining from sexual contact.”
The revised warning labels, which will probably undermine the confidence some people have in condoms, could lead to more people leading chaste lives, said Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation.
“The [more] the HPV message gets out there, I think we increase the chances of people not using condoms and therefore being chaste,” he said.
The Church's position on the subject of condoms — and birth control in general — is clear. The Catechism says “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.”
Several organizations, including the U.N. Population Fund and the World Health Organization, criticized the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family last year for his comments about the ineffectiveness of condoms.
“One cannot really speak of ‘safe sex,’ leading people to believe that the use of condoms is the formula to avoid the risk of HIV and thus to overcome the AIDS pandemic,” Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo said in response to the criticism during a Vatican Radio interview last November. “Nor should people be led to believe that condoms provide absolute safety. They do not mention that there is a percentage of grave risk, not only of AIDS but also of the different sexually transmitted diseases, and that the rate of failure is quite high.”
By promoting abstinence, the Church's approach is to view the person as a whole and not as “commodity” to be experimented with, said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Secretariat.
“The Catholic Church advocates and teaches a lifestyle that is frankly 100% effective against STDs and that is abstinence outside of marriage,” she said. “And this teaching affects the whole person: physical, emotional, moral, spiritual. It really is not surprising that science and common sense support the Catholic Church's teaching.”
‘Need to Know’
Although the Bush administration promotes abstinence-only education, some lawmakers are convinced condoms are still the answer when dealing with diseases.
“It is true that condoms have not been proven to reduce the risk of HPV infection,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., during the March 11 hearing. “However, what is more significant is that condoms are associated with less cervical cancer — which is, after all, the key reason we care about HPV infection.”
Waxman admitted that condoms were not perfect, but he added that abstinence-only education rarely works.
Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., disagreed with Waxman on the issue of abstinence.
“If you have 20 teen-agers who say they will abstain, and let's say only five do abstain, that's five that you have saved from contracting HPV or AIDS or anything else,” she told the Register.
She said she favors the revised warning labels because condom users, especially young women, need to know there is still a risk of contracting a disease such as HPV.
“[They need to know] they're not protected just because we, the taxpayers, provide them a condom through school,” she said. “Personally, I would like to see them abstain.”
Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.
- April 4-10, 2004