Colin Powell on HIV and Condoms

The subject of this short posting is a public figure, Colin Powell, rather than a scientist. It deals with Powell’s strong support of condom usage by sexually active young people, so that they might protect themselves against contracting HIV/AIDS. In 2002, at the time of this particular incident, Powell was serving as Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration. Importantly, Powell’s advocacy of condoms to prevent sexual transmission of HIV was contrary to the Bush administration’s strongly held abstinence-only approach. Powell, a Republican, previously served as a four-star general in the U.S. Army and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

[Aside: This incident was brought to mind by the recent “Hobby Lobby” case, in which the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that certain so-called “closely held” corporations do not have to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees under the Affordable Care Act (“Obama care”), if providing that coverage violates the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners.]

Powell made his remarks during an interview concerning the spread of AIDS that was broadcast on the MTV network. Among Powell’s comments, he said “It is important that the whole international community come together, speak candidly about it, forget taboos, and forget about conservative ideas about what you should tell young people about. It’s the lives of young people that are put a risk by unsafe sex.”

While the interview took place in a Washington D.C. studio, it was transmitted via satellites to studios worldwide, and Powell took questions from young listeners both at home and abroad. A young Italian Catholic woman asked Powell, through an interpreter, to specifically state his position regarding condoms. Powell replied “I certainly respect the position of the Holy Father and the Catholic Church. In my own judgment, condoms are a way to prevent infection. Therefore, I not only support their use, I encourage their use among people who are sexually active and need to protect themselves. I think it’s important for young people especially to protect themselves from the possibility of acquiring any sexually transmitted disease, but especially to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, which is a plague that is upon the face of the earth.”

Not surprisingly, Powell’s statements generated an angry response from some of the President’s closest supporters, as well as from conservative politicians and right-wing religious groups. Most criticism took Powell to task on “moral” grounds. For example, the president of Concerned Women for America stated, “He undercut the moral authority of all parents, he embarrassed President Bush and undercut the Administration’s policies, and he needs to retract these statements immediately.”

Others of Powell’s detractors added that condom usage is not 100% effective at preventing sexual transmission of HIV. To that point, it is difficult to accurately measure the effectiveness of condoms, since that assessment involves looking into people’s private behaviors. Nevertheless, the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention states: “The body of research on the effectiveness of latex condoms in preventing sexual transmission of HIV is both comprehensive and conclusive. The ability of latex condoms to prevent transmission of HIV has been scientifically established in ‘real-life’ studies of sexually active couples as well as in laboratory studies.” And, since condoms need to be used consistently and correctly to be maximally effective, it is important that sex education programs speak to these points. For, as Powell said, “It’s the lives of young people that are put at risk by unsafe sex.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer attempted to calm matters stating, “Colin Powell takes a back seat to no one when it comes to abstinence and abstinence education.”

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