President George W. Bush famously said "It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life ..." It's a good line, and was probably meant to be accompanied by trumpets and flourishes. For those who don't know -- it's a code. Our president uses so many codes that at times he seems to be speaking in fluent 180-bit encryption. "Life" is a euphemism for anything that he expects will please the antiabortion voters.
There can be a sincere debate about whether a fertilized egg is entitled to the same rights and considerations as the considerably more complex and self-aware organism that might (ready and willing or not) become the egg's mother, but it is harder to see how these same rights and entitlements can be afforded to an unfertilized ovum. The combination of ovum plus spermatozoon have been recast by the Right to Life people as an Unborn Baby, but it's a stretch to see how an ovum that has never had contact with a sperm can be treated as anything but a menstrual period.
In spite of this, US health policy and foreign policy seem to be predicated not only on the right of a blastula and gastrula to gestate, be born and vote Republican, but also on the principle that every egg has an equal opportunity to be fertilized. According to the Republican Party line, the only politically acceptable means of birth control is abstinence. Condoms, which have been the most effective method of preventing the spread of HIV consistent with human sexuality, are condemned because in addition to preventing the spread of disease, they also prevent the union of egg and sperm.
While the administration has committed $15 billion to fighting AIDS in Africa, it has set strict rules on how the money is to be spent. Apparently the focus of the fight against AIDS is a series of lectures on the benefits of abstinence and monogamy. A full 30% of all US contributions must go through faith-based organizations. These are organizations that tell people not to use condoms -- thereby undermining the best hope of preventing the spread of HIV.
Uganda had been the best symbol of what can be done to reduce the spread of AIDS, with a program of education, treatment and widespread condom distribution. HIV prevalence among pregnant Ugandan women rose from 24% in 1989 to 30% in 1992; by 1999 it had dropped to 10%. However, in 2004, a nonofficial report indicated that Uganda's HIV infection rate is up to 17%.
Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary General's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has said that US cuts in funding for condoms and a new emphasis on promoting abstinence had contributed to a condom shortage in Uganda. The US government has denied any responsibility for the condom shortage or reduced use of condoms. Apparently we can be proud of our industrial productivity except in the areas of armor for Iraq and condoms for Africa.
Faith-based AIDS prevention goes beyond the spread of the disease. According to a Reuters report of Sept. 8, AIDS has left so many African farm workers unable to work that the amount of cultivated land in some nations has dropped by 70%. The result of the culture of life threatens to bring famine to millions of people already living in the worst possible poverty and afflicted with a progressively fatal disease.
The simplest way of retarding the progression of AIDS would be wide and free distribution of latex condoms, but that might not sit well with the Bush base. Millions may die of AIDS, and millions more of starvation, but the United States is sticking with its faith-based public health policies.
According to some interpretations, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are war, plague, famine and death. War in Iraq, plague in New Orleans, famine in Africa and death everywhere -- but be sure to call it a "culture of life."
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist from Long Island, N.Y.