Letter from John Ooi (Published in an edited form in CN26/05, Dec 25)

Practise safe sex - use the condom, and you're be protected against pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease (STD)! This is what articles about sexually active teenagers that appear regularly in the secular press push for. And in discussing sex education, these articles may make the Church's teachings on chastity (which means abstinence for the unmarried) appear out-of-touch with modern day reality.

It is agreed that there is a problem, which is that a portion of our youth are sexually active. There are generally two options to solve any problem. Option 1 (the safe sex message) is to go for a quick fix that its proponents hope would be adequate. Option 2 (the abstinence message) is more difficult but more effective as it identifies and addresses the root causes.

How valid is the safe sex assumption that the condom would address the problem of teenage pregnancy and of teenagers contracting STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital herpes, HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which leads to AIDS)?

The user effectiveness rate of the condom is of the order of 86% (1). This means that of 1000 women and their partners who are using the condom, 140 would be pregnant after one year. Now if the remaining 860 women continue using the condom for a second year, another 14% of this group (or 120 women) would possibly be pregnant by the end of the second year, that is, there is a 26% chance of an unintended pregnancy after 2 years. The probability of an unintended pregnancy would increase with length of use - this is a statistical fact.

As for the effectiveness of the condom in preventing STD transmission, what is the scientific evidence? This was the question that brought together a number of public health agencies in the United States at the start of this millennium. The scientists involved reviewed and discussed the data from many published studies. As indicated in the table below, they were unable to conclude that the condom can effectively prevent the transmission of a number of common STDs. One reason for this could be that these STDs infect the entire genital area and are spread by skin-to-skin contact. Also, if one compares the factors involved in achieving pregnancy versus AIDS transmission, it would be logical to conclude that the condom cannot be more effective in preventing AIDS than in preventing pregnancy. Should one promote an airline that has a crash rate per year of 14% or higher?

Condom Effectiveness for STD Prevention (2)

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STD | Effectiveness

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Chlamydia | No proof of effectiveness

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Gonorrhoea | Men: Some risk reduction; Women: No proof of effectiveness

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Syphilis | No proof of effectiveness

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Genital Herpes | No proof of effectiveness

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HPV | No proof of effectiveness

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HIV / AIDS | Significant risk reduction (but not elimination of risk)

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An effective approach must first understand why people get sexually active. Our youth, indeed all of us, search for love and happiness. Unfortunately, some mistakenly believe that they will find this love and happiness in sex or through sex. Abstinence education helps our youth to understand that, while we are all sexual beings, we are more than just being physically male or female. Our sexuality includes, in addition to the physical, all the mental, emotional and spiritual characteristics associated with being male or female. The way we think, feel, behave, react - these are all affected by our being male or female. One interacts with and builds up relationships with other persons as a complete and whole sexual person.

Abstinence education suggests to our youth that, before marriage, it is best to develop a relationship by focussing on these other aspects of sexuality first (that is, to learn to relate to each other mentally, emotionally and spiritually). Only after a couple have developed a great relationship and sealed their commitment to each other in marriage will sexual intercourse (which is the intimate language of the body in marriage) be an appropriate way to express, strengthen and deepen that love further. This contrasts with unmarried teenage couples involved in a sexual relationship where the focus on sex makes it difficult for their relationship to progress beyond a shallow, physical level. The common experience is that most of these relationships break up eventually after the initial attraction has died away.

Beyond the physical, the condom provides our youth with no protection against emotional hurts from relationships that have gone wrong, nor does it help to develop their self-mastery. Compared with the safe sex message which is based on erroneous beliefs, abstinence education is more consistent with the aim of education to develop our youth holistically, for it does not pander to desires but strengthens the will, develops self-mastery and enhances self-esteem.

(1) Robert A. Hatcher, et. al. Contraceptive Technology (17th Revised Edition). New York: Ardent Media, Inc., 1998. Table 31-1, p. 800.

(2) From the Summary Report on Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention prepared by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Dept of Health and Human Services, USA, July 20, 2001.

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