Political Hay

Flawed Condoms

The porn industry’s decision to shut down production for 60 days could not have come at a more appropriate time -- STD Awareness Month.

By 4.23.04

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WASHINGTON -- The recent decision by the porn industry to shut down production for 60 days because several of its stars tested positive for HIV could not have come at a more appropriate time. After all, April is National STD Awareness Month, but do not count on the porn industry to get straightened out by this scare.

After all, this is the third time in the last six years such a scare has run through the so-called industry. In this case, the veteran actor had performed in Brazil and not used a condom.

Even if he had, the fact is that condoms themselves are ineffective at preventing STDs, particularly the human papillomavirus, commonly called HPV, a virus that can cause cervical cancer.

There is a burst of sun shining through all this gloom that reflects the low state of our culture.

LAST MONTH, REP. MARK Souder (R-IN) held a hearing in the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee on the necessity of including warning labels on condoms. Not only is this common sense, it is the law. Then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK) had legislation signed into law by President Clinton in December 2000 that required condoms to carry labeling similar to that of the Surgeon General's warning on cigarette packages.

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been hemming and hawing in carrying out this act of Congress.

Dr. Coburn told the Committee about an 18-year-old girl in his care who, because of experience with one sexual partner, was infected with HPV and was forced to have a good-sized portion of her cervix removed. "As a result she is less likely to be able to become pregnant in the future and more likely to have a premature infant if she does become pregnant. And despite already undergoing invasive treatment, she remains at risk for future complications and additional surgeries."

Coburn noted the National Cancer Institute's statistics show 24 million Americans are currently infected with the HPV virus and that HPV is a contributor to cancers affecting the cervix and other sexual organs. "An infected mother may transmit HPV to her newborn with affected children facing prolonged, difficult treatment for respiratory papillomatosis."

Condoms provide no protection from this often deadly virus because it is spread by contact in areas not covered by a condom. The National Cancer Institute has pointed out, "Behaviors such as beginning sexual intercourse at an early age -- especially age 16 or younger -- and having many sexual partners increase the chance that a woman will develop an HPV infection in the cervix." Therefore abstinence and avoiding promiscuity, especially at an early age, rather than condoms, are the only sure ways to protect against HPV.

REP. COBURN WENT TO GREAT lengths in arranging expert testimony and distributing scientific data about the failure of condoms to protect against HPV only to have the Food & Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control ignore it. It was only after Dr. Coburn left Congress, in April 2001, that a blue-ribbon panel he had requested, which was appointed by the Clinton administration, issued a report asserting that there was no epidemiological evidence that condom use reduced the risk of HPV infection or those of a number of other STDS. One month after publishing the report the CDC posted a statement on its website that continued its line giving condoms the okay as a preventative measure against HPV.

However, right before Rep. Coburn left Washington his law requiring warning labels on condom packages was signed by President Clinton.

The CDC was directed to recommend the best strategies to prevent future HPV infections by December 21, 2003. Realizing that they were not going to make the deadline, in a September 2003 report to Congress the CDC outlined a timetable that extended the deadline by four years. Congress balked at this delay and the CDC issued its report in January 2004. The report conceded: "The available scientific evidence is not sufficient to recommend condoms as a primary prevention strategy for the prevention of genital HPV infection."

Nor had the FDA acted to establish guidelines to ensure medically accurate labeling of condoms.

Fortunately, Rep. Souder held the hearing, making clear that one of the roles of his subcommittee: "...is to make sure the laws of Congress are enforced by the executive branch."

Under questioning by Souder, a representative of the CDC admitted that abstinence is the best protection against sexually transmitted diseases and that condoms are able to provide "some protection, but not complete protection."

The CDC is still stalling when it comes to educating the public about the shortcomings of condoms and how best to protect against HPV, as required by law. Rep. Souder has no intention of letting up and has written letters to the CDC and FDA asking tough, detailed questions about their work on STD prevention issues. The letter sent to the CDC questions an assertion made by the doctor who testified on its behalf. "Are two studies that show such an association between condom use and reduced cervical cancer risk sufficient to make claims that condom use reduces cervical cancer risk?" he asked.

At the hearing, the FDA representative announced that his agency was developing guidelines for condom labeling.

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT VICTORY in that it represents an effort by Congress to make sure its will is respected and science is not subverted. More importantly, alerting users that condoms provide incomplete protection against STDs, particularly HPV, is an important victory for the truth.

However, this is not the end by any means. One victory does not mean the war is won. Grassroots conservatives need to keep the pressure on the CDC and the FDA to make sure their official positions reflect the truth about condoms and that they carry through on Congress's will.

Then, there is the larger battle. The truth must not just be heard by larger society, it must be acknowledged.

That means there is still work to be done. But thanks to the commitment of public officials such as Rep. Souder and Dr. Coburn in raising public awareness of this important issue -- one that has a direct bearing on the lives of young men and women -- the truth is starting to become known sand will soon be in small print on every condom label.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.