World AIDS Day: Confronted By The Choice Of Ignorance vs. Education

By Elizabeth Birch, HRC Executive Director

World AIDS Day is a time to observe new scientific breakthroughs,
examine the current state of the crisis and remember loved ones who have
fallen victim to the disease. This somber day takes on new significance in
light of the recent elections that have caused great uncertainty about the
direction of HIV/AIDS public policy, particularly in regard to prevention
efforts. If our nation is to succeed in limiting new infections and
effectively battling the epidemic, we must begin with an honest,
science-based dialogue that deals with four central facts:

  • If used properly, condoms work the vast majority of the time and
    they have saved millions of lives.

  • A substantial number of teen-agers are going to have sex regardless
    of how many times we tell them to "just say no." For example, more than
    half of those aged 15 to 19 have had sex. For 18-year-olds, the figure is 70
    percent. These sexually active young men and women deserve to know how to
    protect themselves and not have their health compromised though
    state-sanctioned ignorance.

  • There is no scientific evidence that abstinence-only programs work.
    And these programs are highly unrealistic considering most people do not
    marry until their late 20s.

  • Abstinence-only education programs are essentially worthless for gay
    and lesbian teen-agers because the message of "no sex until marriage"
    excludes these young men and women who cannot legally marry. With gay men
    still making up a significant portion of new HIV infections, any program
    that ignores these at-risk individuals is ineffective and will continue the
    proliferation of the disease unchecked.

Unfortunately, efforts to teach inclusive and effective
science-based HIV prevention are under a concerted attack by right-wing
ideologues who are putting politics ahead of people, and indoctrination in
front of education. With the Bush administration backing abstinence-only
"education" efforts, America is increasingly putting its young people in
harm's way and risking an explosion of new HIV/AIDS cases.

Consider that the federal government is now giving more than $100
million a year to states to teach abstinence-only education. The percentage
of public schools replacing comprehensive sex-ed with abstinence-only
education has gone from 2 percent 10 years ago to 25 percent today.

While abstinence should be taught as a viable option as part of a
comprehensive sex-ed program, we have an obligation and a responsibility to
provide our children with a broad base of knowledge so they can effectively
protect themselves from HIV. Sadly, the scientific facts are not what
interest those who push abstinence-only programs. Their position is based
solely on their interpretation of morality and a desire to foist it upon our
nation regardless of the health, economic or social consequences. To
accomplish their political goals, they have recently waged war against
condoms, distorting the medical facts to sabotage public confidence in these

For example, on MSNBC's "Donahue Show," Christine O'Donnell, a
spokesperson with Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT),
contradicted decades of medical facts by proclaiming "condoms will not
protect you from AIDS."

On the MSNBC show "Hardball," Andrea Lafferty, a Traditional Values
Coalition spokesperson, said kids are choosing to abstain because they
"understand the dangers of STD's, that condoms do not prevent them and that
condoms don't always work." Later on the same show, Lafferty tried to
demagogue the issue by accusing those who advocate comprehensive HIV/AIDS
education as "latex educators" and she tried to intimidate a political
opponent by calling her a "sex promoter."

The list of right-wing commentators who attack condoms, while
extolling abstinence-only programs is lengthy. But wishful thinking on
abstinence-only education will not stop the spread of the disease. The
reality is that 40,000 people are infected each year in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there could be
as many as 300,000 people in this nation who are unaware of their HIV
status. It is clear that gay and bisexual men are among this group,
considering that 42 percent of all new AIDS cases in the country still occur
within the gay and bisexual community. Even more alarming is that gay and
bisexual youth, African Americans and Latinos compromise a disproportionate
share of the new HIV infections in this country.

These statistics are sobering, but we are fortunate because the
numbers could be much higher if not for effective prevention programs that
include information on condoms. In the end, this battle over America's
HIV/AIDS public policy comes down superstition vs. science, and education
vs. ignorance. We must work to see that science and education win, or World

AIDS Day will soon become a grim reminder of how we chose policies that
allowed the epidemic to spiral out of control and infect a new generation of
young men and women.

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