The Miami Herald
Jan. 15, 2004

Bishops, Brazilian government at odds over free condoms

  Knight Ridder News Service

  RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - After dark, it gets pretty raunchy in Vila Mimosa, a hub for cheap sex in Rio, but government posters promoting condom use cut
  through the red-light district's atmosphere like a whiff of ammonia.

  ''For us, the use is almost 100 percent,'' said Giovania Cabral, a 33-year-old hooker.

  Brazil's Health Ministry couldn't be more pleased. It gave away more than 300 million condoms last year in places such as Vila Mimosa and in some high
  schools, hoping to slow the highest AIDS rate in South America.

  But Brazil is also the world's largest Roman Catholic country. And its Catholic bishops deplore the free condom policy every bit as much as World Health
  Organization public health doctors laud it, as the bishops seek to restrain sexual behavior in one of the world's most sensuous nations.


  The breaking point may not be far off, since the Health Ministry plans to expand its efforts to give away condoms in public high schools next month.

  According to the ministry, the fastest-growing rates of Brazilian AIDS infection are among teens ages 16 to 19. Brazilian girls are almost twice as likely to
  get infected, reflecting their tendency to have older sexual partners who have been more promiscuous and are at greater risk of HIV infection.


  Overall, Brazil has South America's highest AIDS rate -- almost 238,000 documented cases since 1980, a number believed far lower than actual infection
  rates. Many Brazilians refuse to seek AIDS testing and die from AIDS-related illnesses that are never classified as such.

  Church leaders have drawn the line at expanding the giveaway programs, which last year provided 317,000 condoms to teens -- along with sex education
  -- in four interior cities and Sao Paulo, the country's largest metropolis.

  But Carla Silveira, a technical coordinator in the ministry's national anti-AIDS division, said the effort went well enough to justify going national next month.

  It shouldn't, the National Conference of Bishops warned in a Dec. 9 statement. Distribution of free condoms ''could be seen by students as an incentive to
  exercise sexuality, without limits or criteria,'' the bishops said.

  The Health Ministry and the bishops also clashed in November over a government-funded educational video that seemed to challenge church doctrine on

  The video's controversial title declared: Sin is Not Using One.

  Church leaders in Rio de Janeiro sued successfully to halt distribution of the video, using a Brazilian law against religious insults.

  The Health Ministry responded last month by criticizing church authorities for disputing the effectiveness of condoms in slowing the spread of AIDS. Ministry
  officials tossed fuel on the fire by warning that the church ``could be committing one more crime against humanity.''

  The dig was a reference to a controversial television news magazine program in November that likened church opposition to condom campaigns to the
  Vatican's silence over Nazi Germany's extermination of Jews. It asked, ``How long will it take before the church asks forgiveness from the victims of AIDS?''

  The television program and the now-banned video contended that the sanctity of life is threatened by failure to use a condom, and that the threat to
  actual life is more important than life that has yet to become.

  ''When they say it is a sin because it makes it impossible to bring new life, we say that today not using a condom is a sin because it is irresponsible'' and
  threatens life, said Regina Soares, executive coordinator for Catholics for the Right to Choose in Sao Paulo.


  A movement in eight Brazilian states and abroad, Catholics for the Right to Choose wants mainstream church leaders to recognize that Brazilians are
  having sex, and lots of it, spreading AIDS.

  Among Brazilians proud of a famous song with the lyrics, ''There is no sin south of the equator,'' the pro-condom message is easier to sell than restraint.