Thursday, March 4, 2010

The poor can afford condoms

Editorial of Business Mirror
Friday, 05 March 2010 21:15

THE continuing word war between the new health secretary and Catholic bishops over the former’s declared policy of distributing more condoms, as part of a program to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS which has so sharply risen in recent years as to be declared “an epidemic,” is truly unfortunate.

From where we sit, both sides have raised valid concerns that, unfortunately, have been consumed in the angry rhetoric that has been unleashed since, ironically, “Hearts’ Day” or Valentine’s.

Much is now known of what either side has been saying about the other. Stung by the apparently in-your-face state campaign of distributing condoms and the defeatist attitude underlying such an AIDS-containment strategy, several bishops have lashed out at Dr. Esperanza Cabral, the otherwise affable, intelligent health secretary, with one cleric loudly expressing hope she could escape eternal damnation for breaking Church teachings on artificial contraceptives. To this, she has responded quite firmly that she will keep doing it; that she is simply carrying out her duty as a public servant in charge of promoting the overall health of people by, in this case, stemming the spread of the dread disease. News reports quoted the department head as saying the condom-distribution strategy isn’t so much a pitch for the controversial reproductive-health bill that espouses massive distribution, at state expense, of artificial contraceptive devices, but more a public-health strategy to cut the alarming rise in HIV/AIDS.

The Department of Health (DOH) strategy, however, is problematic: one, as more articulate churchmen have stressed, it proceeds from a position of weakness by conceding offhand that people will keep doing risky sex practices and, therefore, at the very least they should be encouraged—nay, not just encouraged but virtually pushed, since the state is giving away condoms for free—to use what is touted as a foolproof safeguard against the dread disease. It’s a cop-out, a virtual “if-you-can’t-lick-’em-just-join-’em” scheme that abandons right from the start the State’s responsibility also to educate people on public health, and help foster good values and practices among them. It reminds one of the controversial practice in certain rich countries to distribute free, clean syringes to addicts who can’t be stopped from their habit—so that, at the very least, they only get “high” and not be infected with HIV/AIDS, syringe-sharing having been established as a major source of AIDS transmission.

The second problem with the DOH’s seeming epiphany in acknowledging HIV/AIDS as now a serious threat because of the alarming rise in incidence is that it dances just about the same time, in the same ballroom, as the controversial reproductive-health bill that got stuck in Congress amid the very loud debates—mostly barely scratching the surface because they were framed so simplistically by both sides—between champions of church doctrine, on one side, and the rabid defenders of artificial contraception, on the other. The debates ground to a halt because the more substantive facets weren’t tackled; not to mention the many misleading provisions ingeniously stitched in by the bill’s authors who seemed bent on splurging huge sums from taxpayers just to revive the stalled business of multinational pharma firms also peddling contraceptive devices and drugs.

Drowned out in the din of the debate was this mercantilist bent of certain powerful forces, who would use one faith, the Catholic Church, as a bogey to preach the gospel of contraception disguised so altruistically as genuine concern for women’s health. Unfortunately, the defenders of natural family planning and the churchmen who joined the fray also didn’t go beyond the trap laid out by the aggressive authors of the bill, i.e., that the Church is just a “bully” trying to meddle in matters of the state. The Church could very well have raised a very brilliant insight by one lawmaker who took the trouble of dissecting each provision to show the hidden motives of framers. In his five-part series “The culling fields” serialized in this paper last year, Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. said that when the Constitution laid down the clear division between Church and State, the proscription on meddling applied to both. The state should not be allowed to pass a law allowing itself to use people’s money—and huge sums of it—to finance a population program that is so lopsidedly in favor of one strategy (the pill-condom-IUD merchants) and yet invokes a constitutional mandate to allow families the freedom to decide how to plan their families. Clearly, an in-your-face attack on one faith, using money of people who included mostly Catholics, wasn’t contemplated by the Constitution. And Locsin couldn’t help but note, why should the state spend millions to subsidize people’s condoms, when even the poorest citizen can pay hundreds of pesos each month for their cell-phone “load”?

But few were paying heed to that brilliant insight. They were just all scratching the surface then, as they are now, in this redux called DOH vs the Church.

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