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About AIDS

HIV Becomes Hostage in Abstinence Debate

By Sandy Bartlett, December 24, 1999, Columns

One of the most common - but diagnostically overlooked - forms of sexually transmitted disease (STD) is human papilloma virus (HPV). Unlike other STD's, infection with HPV doesn't require penetration intercourse because it can survive on warm, moist genital areas and be transmitted through varied forms of intimate contact. Therefore, condoms will not necessarily stop HPV infection. Unfortunately, perhaps 1% of HPV-infected women may develop cervical cancer.

Despite the low incidence of HPV-induced disease (or death), right-wing abstinence supporters warn that nothing can prevent HPV but stopping premarital sex. Their position is that even using condoms is not "safe" sex, and only abstinence can prevent disease. Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., recently introduced legislation which would require a warning label on condoms about their failure to completely protect against HPV.

What does this have to do with AIDS? Public health folks fear that Coburn's anti-condom message will lead to decreased condom use, undoing the safe sex messages of the past 18 years. Indeed, studies among teenagers already indicate that such is the effect of mixed messages. Conservatives claim condoms don't work perfectly and cannot be relied upon; their goal is to stop sex, not disease. Teen males then abandon the "unreliable" condom (which they didn't want to use anyway), but do not stop the sexual activity. Result: increased rates of pregnancy and STDs, including HIV.

This column has always argued that mixing agendas results in ineffectiveness, or worse, unintended outcomes. If the religious right wants to stop nonmarital sex, fine; they should grab that bull by the horns (no pun intended) and promote their issue clearly. However, hijacking other public health issues not only fails to achieve their goal but actually does serious human damage along the way.

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