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The Politicization of Science Goes Both Ways

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds links to an AP report that bears the misleading title, "CDC fact sheet not promoting condom use any more." Mr. Reynolds offers the following opinion:

I'm disturbed at this report that the CDC is no longer promoting condom use as a response to STDs, even though condoms are highly effective against AIDS. Sure, they're not perfect protection against everything. But then, seatbelts aren't perfect protection either, and they promote those.

The problem, of course, is that once the science is politicized and the public health community forfeits much of its public trust, well, the door's open. I'd like to see the public health establishment focus more on science and less on politics. But then, I wanted that five years ago, too.

The first objection that I would raise is that Reynolds presumes that the language of the fact sheet was not politicized before. Here's how the AP describes the change:

On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, the condom fact sheet had said that refraining from sex was the best way to prevent transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases. The old version went on to say: "But for those who have sexual intercourse, latex condoms are highly effective when used consistently and correctly."

The recently posted version focuses on HIV along with other sexually transmitted diseases. In its introduction, the fact sheet now says that condoms "can reduce the risk of STD transmission. However, no protective method is 100 percent effective, and condom use cannot guarantee absolute protection against any STD."

That doesn't quite give the entire comparison. The character of the intercourse is left vague in the old version, and the AP cuts out the corresponding sentiment in the new version. Here's the relevant chunk of text that is currently available:

The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and you know is uninfected.

For persons whose sexual behaviors place them at risk for STDs, correct and consistent use of the male latex condom can reduce the risk of STD transmission.

The old version may very well have included the monogamous relationship comment, and there is no doubt that the emphasis of the passage has changed. But can it be said that one is neutral while the other is politicized? Personally, I find the sunny terms of "those who have sexual intercourse" to be less clinically accurate than the admittedly starker "whose sexual behaviors place them at risk." After all, the purpose of condoms is to reduce a risk at which one has placed himself or herself. However, I'll concede that the differentiation is right on the eye-of-the-beholder line.

My second objection is that this text comes from the introductory "bottom line" section, in which it does not seem unduly political to let the language lean toward a larger conclusion. Condoms, of course, are merely a piece in society's treatment of sex, and there is certainly an argument to be made that, in the broader picture, not actively encouraging sex through claims of a virtual panacea is the wiser course. Those against the change in presentation will object that abstinence has, all along, been mentioned as the only sure method to avoid STD. But if they're honest, they'll admit that its treatment has been more akin to a small-font disclaimer than a bold-faced declaration. When Planned Parenthood handed me a condom in high school, I certainly felt like (more of) a loser for having no use for it.

Anyway, here's the text from a summary box directly following the introduction:

Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In addition, correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including discharge and genital ulcer diseases. While the effect of condoms in preventing human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is unknown, condom use has been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer, an HPV-associated disease.

That seems pretty balanced to me. The only way it is accurate to say that the CDC is not "promoting" condom use is if one means that it is no longer promoting the activity that makes condom use advisable. Frankly, I don't find it encouraging that even such minor changes — to an online fact sheet — toward a more cautious, more circumspect treatment of sexual behavior is apt to be seen as opening the door for the soldiers for morality to come in and break up Mr. Science and Ms. Freedom's liaison.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 11:06 AM EST