TCS Daily

The Phony Abstinence Complaint

By James K. Glassman - August 20, 2004 12:00 AM

You would think that a country that contributes twice as much money to fight AIDS globally as the rest of the world combined and whose drug companies developed the medicines that stopped the progression of HIV dead in its tracks -- you would think that such a country would get a little applause, or at least respect, at a giant conference on AIDS, like the one held in Bangkok in July.

But you would be wrong. The country in question, of course, is the United States, and, instead of praise, it got vilification. Why? Oh, a variety of reasons, but the one that resonated most, especially with Europeans, was, in the words of Sebastian Mallaby, a Brit who writes for the Washington Post, that "the Bush Administration panders to the religious right."

Specifically, as Bill Bowtell, president of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations, put it, "The money was to be spent as the United States wished -- to promote abstinence from sexual activity" even though "there is simply no scientific or evidence-based research to support the claim that abstinence works to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."

Rupert Everett, the movie actor, condemned the U.S. at the Bangkok conference for "its judgmental attitude toward this subject we are dealing with -- sex." And Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif) said that "an abstinence-until-marriage program is not only irresponsible, it's really inhumane."

All of these criticisms fit the stereotype promoted by Europeans and Americans who think they are just as sophisticated as Europeans; that is, the president and his supporters are religious nuts who think sex is bad and are imposing their pious values in a dangerous way on public policy.

In fact, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief -- the largest program to fight any disease by any country -- will spend less than 7 percent of its budget on abstinence programs. Abstinence is "A" in the balanced "ABC" approach ("B" stands for "be faithful" and "C" stands for "condoms") to prevention that the U.S. Agency for International Development has promoted and that clearly works. Just ask Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, where the national prevalence of HIV infection dropped from 15 percent of the population in the early 1990s to 5 percent in 2001.

Museveni told the Bangkok conference that "AIDS is mainly a moral, social and economic problem" and that the best way to fight it was with "relationships based on love and trust, instead of institutionalized mistrust, which is what the condom is all about." The key to the drop in infections in Uganda was a delay in the average age of a woman's first sexual experience and a reduction in the number of her partners. Abstinence works.

As for condoms, they work, too, and the U.S. advocates their use. In fact, the State Department reports that this year America will donate 550 million condoms to poor countries -- compared with 186 million in 1999, during the Clinton administration. In the past five years, we have given away more than 2 billion.

Yes, the United States is a religious country. The Declaration of Independence says that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Our rights come -- not from a document or a king or a civilization -- but from God. Our Constitution prescribes tolerance as well, and it makes citizens responsible for their own good judgment. As my colleague Michael Novak writes, "The whole point of liberty is this: every choice makes a difference, for the fate of every soul and for the fate of the republic."

AIDS is a terrible disease, but we know that it can largely be prevented by responsible behavior. Certainly, policymakers can't expect every young person to abstain from sex before marriage. But to devote one dollar out of 15 to programs that encourage abstinence is not "irresponsible" or "inhumane." Quite the opposite.

The real question is how on earth people like Bowtell, Everett and Lee can miss this obvious point? One answer is that they instinctively hate the United States and that, having committed $15 billion to fight AIDS, America can't be condemned for not caring. Instead, America is condemned for religiosity. Another answer is that they consider sex primal and irresistible. "The Girl Can't Help It," goes the title of the 1956 Jayne Mansfield movie. A third answer, much more troubling, is that many people simply don't believe that humans have free will -- that we're unable to make free choices. Such a belief in personal helplessness is the foundation stone of socialism and fascism.

President Bush's AIDS program is built on a very different base: a trust in well informed people to make good decisions, a respect for strongly held religious and moral principles and a belief in the beneficial power of sound science in a free economy. Those are values we need to stick with -- no matter what our oh-so-sophisticated critics say.

A version of this article appeared in the American Enterprise magazine.


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