The Church & AIDS in Africa

Condoms & the Culture of Life

As a young physician, I often second-guess myself. In practicing medicine such self-criticism is warranted, even obligatory, because a wrong diagnosis can lead to misguided therapy and may end in death. After working at a Catholic hospital in the small sub-Saharan country of Swaziland, however, there is one diagnosis I pronounce with uncharacteristic certitude: AIDS.

The typical patient is a young woman between eighteen and thirty years of age. She is wheeled into the examining room in a hospital chair or dragged in, supported by her sister, aunt, or brother. She is frequently delirious; her face is gaunt; her limbs look like desiccated twigs. Surprisingly, the young woman is already a mother many times over, yet she will not live to see her children grow up. More shocking still, she is married; her husband infected her with the deadly virus.

This is the reality: a married woman living in Southern Africa is at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV than an unmarried woman. Extolling abstinence and fidelity, as the Catholic Church does, will not protect her; in all likelihood she is already monogamous. It is her husband who is likely to have HIV. Yet refusing a husband’s sexual overtures risks ostracism, violence, and destitution for herself and her children. Given these realities, isn’t opposing the use of condoms tantamount to condemning countless women to death? In the midst of the...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Marcella Alsan, MD, is a physician in the Hiatt Global Health Equity Residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston.