NEW YORK, June 17, 2011 (C-FAM) – Last Friday the high-level UN meeting on HIV/AIDS closed with a political declaration that reveals deeply divided approaches to ending the epidemic.

Divisions were so bitter that a rowdy crowd observing the session repeatedly booed the Holy See delegate when she explained the Holy See position. The chair did not respond to the disturbance, which occurred repeatedly.

The Holy See spokeswoman explained that HIV/AIDS prevention programs “should focus not on trying to convince the world that risky and dangerous behavior forms part of an acceptable lifestyle, but rather should focus on risk avoidance, which is ethically and empirically sound.”

Many countries, including some members of the 53-nation Africa Group, expressed strong reservations to condom-focused prevention methods endorsed in the declaration. These nations take a more holistic approach that includes modifying sexual behavior by emphasizing abstinence and fidelity.

The declaration largely ignored these concerns, instead seeming to accuse conservative countries: “[C]ommitment to prevention is the cornerstone of the global HIV and AIDS response…many national HIV prevention program and spending priorities do not adequately reflect this commitment.” Specifically, the document says that “only 34 per cent have specific goals in place for condom programming.”

Failing to achieve consensus, the chairperson resorted to a “chairman’s text.” But rather than providing a clear roadmap for stemming the HIV/AIDs epidemic, the political document advances conflicting approaches.

For example, the document gave full voice to contested language on sexual and reproductive issues, downplayed risk avoidance through abstinence and fidelity, and focused on liberalizing sexual practices. At the same time, it acknowledged cultural, religious and ethical factors.

And while it acknowledged the central role of the family, it also called for confidential sexual and reproductive health programs and educational curricula for youth without emphasizing parental authority.

Scholars have increasingly criticized the condom-centered programming by international funds and agencies, saying it may worsen the epidemic. In a 2007 article in the medical journal Lancet, James Shelton concluded that, “Many people dislike using [condoms] (especially in regular relationships), protection is imperfect, use is often irregular, and condoms seem to foster disinhibition, in which people engage in risky sex either with condoms or with the intention of using condoms.”

While the recent UN document acknowledges the HIV/AIDS problem as widespread, it fails to account for what scholars say are two distinct epidemics. One epidemic is general, such as that afflicting the heterosexual population across Africa. The other is concentrated in groups engaged in risky behavior such as prostitution and illicit intravenous drug use. Scientific research has shown that sexual partner reduction is the most effective means of curbing the general epidemic.

“What is needed is a value-based approach to counter the disease of HIV and AIDS,” the Holy See delegate concluded at the end of the session, “an approach which provides the necessary care and moral support for those infected and which promotes living in conformity with the norms of the natural moral order, an approach which respects fully the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Reprinted with permission from