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Abstaining From Reality

Kanye West was right.

It’s just that he was talking about a different disaster. But there’s another one, with victims the same color as those in New Orleans, that has the Bush administrations finger prints all over it. And unlike Katrina, anyone who deals in or cares about reality, evidence, and human life could have seen this one coming. Chances are some one in the Bush administration did see it coming, and just didn’t care.

Back in November I blogged about Uganda losing ground in the battle against HIV as a resurgence of infections was reported. Earlier I blogged about an HIV prevention worker forbidden to mention condoms during a program in Uganda. This, at the same time that the country was experiencing a shortage of condoms and flooded with anti-condom propaganda from American fundamentalist groups, after the Bush administration weakened or eliminated restrictions to protect church-state separation and allow these groups to use tax dollars to run health care operations and spread their gospel on the side.

Just a couple of weeks before the Bush administration’s point man on abstinence-only abroad, Randall Tobias was outed as a patron of prostitutes, yet another report was published which spelled out what anyone who cared to already knew: abstinence-only education doesn’t work. Then we learned that abstinence-only education programs ? funded by the Bush administration to the tune o f$176 million annually ? are shot through with inaccurate information about condoms. (And that’s putting it mildly.)

Fortunately, there will be less money for abstinence-only education in the near future.

Federal funding for abstinence education will likely fall considerably this year as Democratic leaders said Wednesday they will let a $50 million grant program expire on June 30.

The program, known as Title V, has not proven to be effective, said Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Dingell’s committee has jurisdiction over Title V funding. With a budget deficit and a war, he said the decision to eliminate funding was not a difficult one.

“Abstinence-only seems to be a colossal failure,” Dingell said.

To back that viewpoint, he cited a recent report to Congress that showed students in four abstinence-until-marriage programs were just as likely to have sex as those who were not in the abstinence programs. They also had sex at about the same age as students who did not take part in the four programs _ 14.9 years, according to Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

Nine states have turned down abstinence-only grants from the government.

But that’s in America. Africa is another story.

Crushing news out of Uganda last week. The Bush administration’s $1 billion experiment in using abstinence messages as the basis of HIV prevention has born its first fruit: In a public speech on May 18, Uganda’s AIDS Commissioner Kihumuro Apuuli announced that HIV infections have almost doubled in Uganda over the past two years, from 70,000 in 2003 to 130,000 in 2005. And despite this chilling wake-up call, Bush has empowered Christian right activists to continue to push their abstinence-only agenda at a UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS, to begin next week. According to a State Department email I obtained, the official U.S. delegation is stacked with some of the very people who contributed to the debacle in Uganda.

Uganda was once an HIV prevention success story, where an ambitious government-sponsored prevention campaign, including massive condom distribution and messages about delaying sex and reducing numbers of partners, pushed HIV rates down from 15 percent in the early 1990s to 5 percent in 2001. But conservative evangelicals rewrote this history–with the full-throated cooperation of Uganda’s evangelical first family, the Musevenis.

That was last year. So was this. [This, and the above link via Alternet Peek.]

This deadly ideology has now been exported, to the tune of $1 billion or more, to countries such as South Africa where more than one in four people have HIV–in other words, where every community is a high-risk group. In a situation like that, marriage itself is an HIV risk factor and monogamy is no protection. And depriving people of condoms and information about how to use them effectively is, frankly, murderous.

I spoke with one AIDS advocate in Uganda recently, who has been active fighting HIV there since long before evangelicals discovered the disease, who says condom shortages are now so acute there, due to U.S. pressure, that some men are now using plastic bags out of desperation.

For many evangelical leaders, this kind of reality check is beside the point, because abstinence is really a back door into evangelism. As Franklin Graham, who has received a multimillion dollar grant to do abstinence education in Uganda, told the Senate a few years ago: “This crisis will be curbed only when the moral teachings of God’s Word permeate African society.”

What has permeated African society under the Bush administration’s policies? And what has it wrought. There’s a movie out now that pretty much spells it out. It’s called Abstaining from Reality.

Filmed in Kenya and Uganda, this 9-minute documentary provides a snapshot of the Bush administrationís abstinence-only approach to HIV prevention as part of its global HIV/AIDS assistance. Abstaining from Reality examines how these ideologically-driven programs are actually endangering the lives of the people they’re supposed to be protecting. This policy is disconnected from the reality of the lives of women and young people, who are disproportionately affected by the epidemic. The film urges a balanced, comprehensive approach to preventing HIV infections by providing full and accurate information and a range of services that empower individuals to make informed decisions.

There’s a PDF factsheet available online, and a clip available on YouTube.

You can see the entire nine minute documentary as well. But I think this woman’s story is compelling enough.

And that’s just from not know how to use a condom,because of never being told how and perhaps being misinformed about their effectiveness. But, really, I should say, deliberately misinformed, because we’ve known for years that abstinence-only doesn’t work. But some of don’t care. For them, it’s beside the point, as the post above indicated. As exemplified by the words of one American abstinence-only educator, they don’t are that it doesn’t work.

“People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works! To truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God!”

Later in the same talk, she explained further why what “works” isn’t what’s important — and gave some insight into what she means by “truth.” “Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here,” she said. “AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”

In that sense, if you think about it, it works precisely because it doesn’t work. The only thing I’m not sure of is who’s more pleased over what happened to Juliet; God or the evangelical abstinence educator. One thing I am sure of, there’s a word for not only knowingly depriving people of information that might save their lives, but lying to them about it too. At least only one word I know.

It must also be said that people who choose to be sexually active deserve accurate information ?untinged by ideology ? on how to reduce risk for themselves and their partners, even if presented alongside abstinence information. It must also be said that to provide them with less — let alone paying faith-based organizations to provide them with less, and making it easier for those organizations to do so — is as best irresponsible. At worst, it’s an act of violence.

But given the number of lives at stake, and the knowledge that abstinence-only doesn’t work and the disregard for evidence of that, does it approach an act of genocide? Yet?

Whatever it is, and whether or it’s pleasing to God that stories like Juliet’s happen over and over again when many could be prevented, some people seem pretty pleased that these stories aren’t being prevented.

Or maybe just pleased with themselves.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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