Monday, March 23, 2009

Life is Sacred - Zackie Achmat on the Pope, Condoms , Choice, Freedom and Equality

by Zackie Achmat, of the Treatment Action Campaign

[For fair comment and use, I republish below and in full a blog from a conservative US journal National Review Online on subject of the Pope and Condoms in Africa. I introduce it with a few comments on the Catholic Church. While I never address personal attacks and this is not the real reason for this reply -- I have to address the prejudice inherent in the blog as indicative of the failure adopt a nuanced and moral approach to sexuality and HIV by some people in the Catholic Church.]


For me, a moral position on sex (irrespective of sexuality) requires that one does not harm yourself or others. Expressed differently love yourself and love others as you would love yourself.

The Catholic Church is one of the most important global institutions both in religious terms and as a political and social force. Its positions, statements and actions must be taken seriously by every person who struggles for social justice. It is also important to note that this Church now more than 2000 years old is not a single institution and neither does it hold a single theological or moral perspective.

Aside from its position on HIV prevention, the Church has played a very important role in the epidemic. The Treatment Action Campaign and many of our allies have worked with the Catholic Church in Southern Africa to ensure support for the ill and dying; advocate for access to medicine globally and a national treatment plan in South Africa. The Church has also been a staunch ally against stigma, discrimination and opposing HIV denial.

One of the most memorable speeches at a TAC organized event was that of the late and much loved Archbishop Denis Hurley at the Global March for Treatment at the Durban AIDS Conference in 2000.

Many TAC members are Catholic and the Church is one of the most powerful forces of organized religion on our Continent. It is often the only provider of healthcare in many African villages and townships. Our engagement with the Catholic Church is based on the need to save lives and our respect for many of the great achievements of all faiths. This does not blind us to intolerance, discrimination or fear of knowledge from within religion.

One of the tenets where we find common ground with the Catholic Church but also where difference exists is in relation to the right to life.

For the Catholic Church, the right to life is sacred -- that is why it correctly opposes the death penalty, and, especially since the Second World War, it has also been opposed to war. Sadly, the majority in the Church hierarchy often reduces the right to life to questions of procreation and sexuality and this opposition becomes an obstacle to social justice.

Freedom and equality for women, equality for lesbians and gay men, opposition to contraception, the right to choose termination of pregnancy and sex education often forms the basis for an intolerance that has led to loss of life and murder, for instance, in the US anti-abortion protests. The Vatican, George Bush, Iranian theocracy and many African countries often operated as an axis of intolerance on these questions

Support for the dominant Catholic hierarchy has also found an echo in movements that is described as right-wing and that oppose racial equality and the duty of the state to support people who need health-care, housing and education – those who are vulnerable and marginalised.

However, the Catholic Church also has a different tradition. In South Africa liberation and socialist theologians such as Father Albert Nolan helped me understand injustice. Archbishop Hurley was one of the most powerful moral voices in the struggle against apartheid and never believed that lesbian and gay people should be discriminated against apartheid. Countless Catholic parish priests from Africa and Latin America to Europe promote the equality and autonomy of women, the dignity of lesbian and gay people and right to choose termination of pregnancy, use contraception and condoms for HIV prevention.

More recently, the Catholic hierarchy endorsed the use of condoms between sero-discordant couples within marriage. Theologically, the Church accepted that HIV prevention and the use of a condom between a man and a woman was essential to promote the right to life.

The comments of Pope Benedict in this context were deeply regrettable and dangerous to life. Few people in Africa or for that matter Europe will have basic HIV prevention literacy that uses scientific evidence to explain that the smallest sexually transmitted virus Hepatitis B cannot find its way through a latex condom.

While one can accept and understand that the duty of Pope Benedict is not to promote condom education or use, it is our duty to ask that neither the Pope nor any leader make comments that on the basis of science and evidence can demonstrate harm when taken literally.

Everyone knows that the Pope and the Catholic Church are human as well as an institutional bureaucracy and therefore fallible. Intolerance and anti-scientific dogma caused death and suffering – not only during the Inquisition but closer to our time . Anti-semitism was promoted by the Catholic Hierarchy. The works of Aristotle was banned and only saved for the Enlightenment by one of my favourite philosophers the Muslim jurist Ibn Rushd. For centuries, the Church condemned Galileo as a heretic and while he was alive, he was placed under house arrest after a papal trial. More than 300 years later, the Pope and the Church apologized to Galileo, Jewish people and so on.

In relation to HIV, we know that millions have already died. In South Africa more than two million people have died in the last ten years. Today, more than 700 000 people are on treatment, however, more than 1000 people a day are still infected and another 900 people continue to die daily. How many men who refuse to wear condoms with many partners including their wives will use Pope Benedict’s statement as a justification for their behaviour?

We all owe it to future generations to conduct a discourse on HIV prevention that attempts to agree on the need to minimize harm rather than to engage in an ideological battle. The Catholic Church has changed. It no longer sanctions slavery or the beating of women by their husbands. On HIV prevention and the real questions of freedom, equality and dignity change must come sooner than the apology to Galileo.

Now to turn to a more personal subject. I have personally documented my sex life in different articles. I became sexually active as 10 year-old gay child. I could not turn to parents, teachers, friends, peers, priests or Imams for guidance on how to be a gay child. The streets were my refuge and education. Discrimination and prejudice against lesbian and gay people makes teenagers of a different sexual orientation invisible. It also denies us our rights to information, education and access to sexual and reproductive health services. All of us must work to change this to prevent harm.

I have probably had more sexual partners than many people – they are not responsible for my HIV. I am directly responsible for not using a condom during anal sex with one partner. It is not the number of partners I had but the fact that I did not use a condom and that is the cause of my infection. To suggest as the Catholic blogger in the National Review Online does that: “There is nothing more permissive and unscientific than finding a man [presumably myself as the rest of the blog suggests] in South Africa who's been recklessly promiscuous with numerous sexual partners and blaming his lack of self-control on the pope.” is not only wrong but unfair to the Treatment Action Campaign and the many different Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who support it.

I am a married gay man and an atheist who subscribes to one moral viewpoint on sexuality and HIV – protect yourself and protect those you love – do not harm yourself and do not harm others. My husband Dalli Weyers sitting opposite me doing a free hand drawing for university is HIV negative. I live with HIV and I am on antiretrovirals. We practice safer sex everytime we have sex. We have been together nearly four years. He is still negative.

There is a great deal of work to do on HIV prevention. Catholics who believe in choice, freedom and equality carry a greater burden because they have to overcome prejudice, stigma and discrimination within their spiritual home. We will support them in their work and we will work with all Catholics to promote access to health-care, housing, education, HIV treatment, fair trade and labour practices and good governance locally and globally.


Ideology, Not Science, Often Drive 'AIDS Advocates'
by Tim Graham
National Review Online

It's completely fair for the media to reproduce nasty anti-pope quotes from secular leftists in opposition to the Catholic Church's opposition to artificial contraception. What's not fair is how these promoters of illicit sex (for what does condom distribution encourage and enable?) are presented as the Voice of Scientific Detachment, as "health advocates" or "AIDS advocates." There is no suggestion that their spitting out their annoyance at "dogma" tags them as sounding more emotional and ideological than scientific. From AP:

Rebecca Hodes with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said if the pope is serious about preventing new HIV infections, he will focus on promoting wide access to condoms and spreading information on how best to use them. "Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans," said Hodes, director of policy, communication and research for the action campaign.

There is nothing more tiresome and mudslinging than suggesting that a religious opposition to condoms is opposed to "saving lives." There is nothing more permissive and unscientific than finding a man in South Africa who's been recklessly promiscuous with numerous sexual partners and blaming his lack of self-control on the pope. But this woman is a hero to secularists: "So Rebecca Hodes knows that a live African is better than a dead Catholic. To me she’s worth more to the African continent than a busload of Popes."

So what is the "Treatment Action Campaign"? It would be a mistake to think it's a non-ideological health group, as AP would have you believe. The Guardian profiled TAC's founder:

Zackie Achmat was 14 when he took his first direct action.

It was 1976, and he felt fellow pupils at his "coloured", or mixed-race, school (where he was sent because of his Malaysian and Muslim roots) were not sufficiently supportive of the anti-apartheid education boycott spreading from the black townships around Johannesburg. So he set fire to the school and nobody went to classes....

Achmat was radicalised by his communist father and shop-steward mother in his youth. He was sent to prison for three months after setting the school on fire and, by the time he was 18, had been in and out of jail four times for political activities.

With liberation from apartheid — and about the time he discovered he was HIV-positive — Achmat founded the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality which, in the early 1990s, played a central role in ensuring that Calvinist laws banning gay and lesbian sex were overturned in the new constitution.

Its guarantees of equality became the levers for overturning laws banning sodomy and requiring the government to recognise same-sex marriages.

"AIDS advocates" aren't simply nonpartisan life-savers. The AIDS lobby and its media allies are often trying to set moral policy instead of medical policy. As Ray Suarez explained for PBS from South Africa: "Policymakers high up on the country's organizational chart struggle to find a message that strips the discussion of AIDS of shame, judgment and guilt. They openly strive for HIV status to become an unremarkable medical fact as easily produced as a cholesterol level or blood pressure."

Remove all concept of judgment or guilt from AIDS transmitters, and you're left blaming the pope instead of the Typhoid Mary and Mark who spread the virus. Now who sounds like they're promoting denial instead of hard facts?

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