Friday, September 5, 2008

Letter to the Editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Dear Editor,

I have been following the Inquirer's coverage on the reproductive health controversy over the past weeks. I wish to commend the commentary by John J. Caroll, S.J., entitled, "Facts and fallacies in the population debate"( I admire his willingness to correct "loose argumentation" on the part of those who he believes are arguing for the position of the Roman Catholic Church.

I agree with Fr. Carroll on most of his points. As early as 1994 at the UN International Conference of Population and Development, I had already agreed with former Philippine ambassador to the Holy See, Henrietta “Tita” T. De Villa, that women advocates should have a sincere dialogue with the Bishops on the matter. That dialogue never materialized. But if it does, Fr. Carroll should be one of the participants.

The Inquirer is also to be commended when it confirmed the complaint of Prof. Ernie Pernia ( that their reporter had misquoted the UP School of Economics (UPSE) position ( on the relation between poverty and family size. This is important because the letter of to the editor of Marita F. Wasan ( took exception to the UPSE paper on the basis of the inaccuracy. Fr. Carroll in his article corrects Kit Tatad's argumentation about the same thing.

If nothing else, the debate reminds everyone to check facts. I do not think this is a requirement merely for journalists and academics. I think it is a requirement of good citizenship. National debates guided by clear argumentation and factual accuracy can be the only basis for an enlightened social policy on these and other controversial matters.

Thus, my disappointment that in a letter to the editor that came out on the same day as Fr. Carroll’s commentary (, Imelda LL. Areolla makes the factually inaccurate claim that the use of condoms will not stop the spread of HIV and that, "The microscopic holes in condoms are large enough for the AIDS virus to pass through."

The World Health Organization has condemned this misinformation saying, ‘These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million.’ It said ‘consistent and correct’ condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by 90%. There may be breakage or slippage of condoms – but not holes through which the virus can pass. (For a summary of the scientific information and the WHO position on the matter of condom use and HIV prevention go to:

Ms. Areolla's article also resorts to the loose argumentation Fr. Carroll decries. First, she misrepresents HIV-AIDS prevention programs as mainly condom distribution. The literature shows that several programmatic elements are recommended (in some programs this includes an emphasis on abstinence and chastity). The scientific literature on “abstinence only” programs also shows that these do not prevent pre-marital sex, let alone sexually transmitted infections.

Secondly, her idea that sex education simply tells adolescents that sex is safe when they use contraceptives is wrong. She further gives the false impression that the adolescent sex education advocated by the medical community is one that does not emphasize values. Sex education for adolescents should teach them about the biology and physiology of many aspects of sexuality and should be explicit about sexual intercourse, prevention of transmission of sexually transmitted infections and contraception. When I teach to various audiences, I also include a discussion about moral frameworks (both secular and religious) that people might want to consider when looking at these matters. Whether only Catholic values of reticence about sexual acts, abstinence before marriage and non-contraception in marriage should prevail in a secular education system is another matter altogether.

My last point is that the Inquirer itself (and the entire profession of journalism) needs to remain self-reflective about what the Inquirer terms as “balanced views”. Is it “balanced” to give equal treatment to views supported by weight of scientific data (e.g. condoms prevent HIV-AIDS) and views supported by the inevitably errant experiments in science (e.g condoms have holes that allow the virus to pass through)? I would argue that giving both views equal space, leads to dangerous results, and does not uphold the highest standards of journalism.

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