In defense of Secretary Cabral

This was my column yesterday.

If I didn’t have my hands full with other pressing engagements last Monday, I would have been there at the Department of Health compound on Tayuman Street in Manila joining hands with women’s groups, non-government organizations, and people living with HIV/AIDS in support of beleaguered Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral.

From what I gathered from friends who were there, the crowd turnout wasn’t bad. Certainly not huge if we are to use El Shaddai or Jesus is Lord standards—but being able to gather close to three hundred live bodies is already a feat given the level of demonizing the cause, and Cabral herself, have been getting from the Catholic Church. Rallying in support of condoms is not exactly something one would usually like to be known for. Also, getting people to rally around and in support of a cabinet secretary of the present dispensation does not sound like a wise move.

But people did show up—and I am glad that they did. About time some people actually stand up to the bullying being done by the Catholic Church on the issue of condoms.

Cabral has been the object of heavy criticism from the Catholic Church on account of her steadfast commitment to promoting the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. At least three influential Catholic bishops have openly asked for her resignation as Health Secretary while other bishops have continued to crucify her in media and at the pulpit calling her immoral and incompetent. She’s not a good Catholic, they say.

Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles labeled Cabral a bad leader since her condom-distribution program supposedly endangers people’s morals. “It is immoral for a government official to support the distribution of condoms which we know does not really reduce or stop the spread of HIV-AIDS,” Arguelles was quoted in various newspapers. The archbishop was quick to condemn Cabral for simply doing her job, which is to save lives while remaining oblivious to the fact that he perpetuated a blatant lie. Arguelles should be reminded of what former senator Juan Flavier used to say to admonish them: “It’s a sin to tell a lie.”

Two of the world’s leading experts on health, the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control in the United States, have repeatedly come out with position papers backed by empirical proof which firmly establish the fact that condoms are effective in preventing HIV infections. Laboratory studies have found that HIV does not pass through intact latex condoms even when these devices are stretched or stressed.

One comprehensive study conducted in Thailand specifically found that use of condoms led to dramatic decline in HIV infections. There have been hundreds of studies conducted all over the world to test the effectiveness of condoms against HIV—and all of these studies showed that the correct and consistent use of condoms have led to dramatic declines in HIV infections. One of the most convincing data on the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV infection has been generated by studies conducted among couples where one partner was infected with HIV while the other was not. These studies showed that, with consistent condom use, the HIV infection rate among uninfected partners was less than 1 percent per year.

I am aware of course that some studies commissioned by the Catholic Church and other similar organizations that have been campaigning against the use of condoms showed—as can be expected given the intent of these studies—mixed results. But even these studies, despite their lack of objectivity and the absence of scientific rigor, recognize that condoms, even if only in principle, help prevent the spread of HIV. Of course these studies belabor certain contextual factors or statistical nuances to support their contention that condoms are not 100 percent effective.

Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez said Cabral should quit as Health secretary because she was not a good Catholic. Gutierrez intoned: “Secretary Cabral should not continue serving until June because the culture and morality of society will be endangered under her. First, she does not respect the big number of Catholics in the country who oppose the distribution of condoms. Second, is she Catholic? I doubt that she is. Because if you are a Catholic and in the government, you should be living the teachings of the Church.”

I have a few points that I would like to ask the bishop. First, where is it written that being a Catholic—or being a good Catholic if he so insists—is a qualification for public office? Second, where in the Constitution does it say that the government should please Catholics in this country? And third, aren’t bishops supposed to lead by example and live the teachings of the Church? I ask this last question because I have always been of the impression that the Church is against lying and condemnation.

So yes, I am very glad that finally we have a health secretary who is standing up to the Catholic church on the matter of condoms (and if the scuttlebutt is to be believed, even on the issue of reproductive health). As some women’s groups have noted, Cabral is one of the very few—probably the first cabinet secretary after Juan Flavier—who has not capitulated to the demands of the bishops. It is my hope that she continues to be brave and resolute in her advocacy.

I’ve already written about this many times in this space, and I will say it again: The HIV/AIDS situation in the country has already reached an alarming stage. Just last December, the national registry recorded 126 cases of new HIV infections. That’s 126 new cases in only a month’s time and that figure is more than triple the monthly infection rates posted in 2009. And we are just talking reported cases here, we’re not talking about the cases that are hidden and not detected.

This is how alarming it has become: Most everyone I know has intimated to me that they know someone who has been diagnosed with HIV.

When we come to think about it, Cabral’s program of action to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS is actually not new or even unique. It’s the same three-pronged strategy that has been operationalized in the past two decades, as ABC: A for abstinence, B for being faithful to one partner, and C for correct and consistent use of condoms.

The Church wants the government to stick to the first option, which is to promote abstinence. There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching people to abstain from sex. The problem is that what do we do with people who can’t abstain from sex? What do we do with people who are not Catholics and who need tools to protect themselves from HIV infection? If we don’t teach people to use condoms, what do we do with couples where one partner is living with HIV? Its position on condoms is just one more proof of the growing irrelevance of the Catholic church. It seems the church is becoming more and more isolated and insulated from mainstream Philippine society.


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