First Lady Laura Bush Advocates 'Safe Sex,' Condoms

By Pete Winn | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - In a Dec. 1 op-ed in the Washington Post, First Lady Laura Bush said Americans need to "practice safe sex," use condoms "every time," and get tested for HIV/AIDS. Her spokeswoman repeated the message to Cybercast News Service this week. However, it is a message that is contrary to the Bush administration's policy position on abstinence education as the best way to fight HIV/AIDS.

In her commentary, "Let's Unite Against HIV-AIDS," Mrs. Bush wrote that Americans "should know our HIV status" and provided the Web site to find "the testing center closest to you."

She went on to write: "Practice Safe Sex. Let's take a cue from our African counterparts and follow the ABC method of prevention: Abstinence, Be Faithful and the Correct and Consistent Use of Condoms. That means not just occasionally, but every time."

But the term "safe-sex" has long been a code word for the promotion of condoms as the best approach to solving the AIDS crisis. Is that what Mrs. Bush meant by the comment? Cybercast News Service posed the question to the White House.

"I think the op-ed speaks for itself," the first lady's press secretary, Sally McDonough, told Cybercast News Service. "Mrs. Bush is and has been a proponent of the ABC program, which is clearly making a difference across the globe.

"Part of ABC is the correct and consistent use of condoms, and she writes that. She goes on to explain that to mean not just occasionally, but every time," McDonough added.

But despite tying it to the ABC program - Uganda's successful program addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic - those involved with the AIDS issue in the U.S. were more interested in the terminology Mrs. Bush chose.

Activists like Ronald Johnson, deputy director of the AIDS Action Council, applauded Mrs. Bush for mentioning safe sex - long a cornerstone of the AIDS agenda.

"We feel that a comprehensive approach to HIV intervention is necessary and that a comprehensive approach must include not only teaching about abstinence and limiting the number of partners, but also condoms and the proper use of condoms," Johnson told Cybercast News Service.

"The fact that she, in her article, articulated a more comprehensive approach than the administration has been articulating domestically was very heartening," he added.

Conservatives who back abstinence programs, meanwhile, wondered whether the administration was wavering from its stated policy of abstinence.

Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, questioned whether the First Lady supported promoting condoms to every young person in America as the answer to HIV/AIDS.

"I hope not," Unruh said. "Her husband is saying something quite different. President Bush has long said, 'What part of abstinence don't people understand?' Abstinence until marriage has to be a clear concise message - not a mixed message. It has to be said every single time."

ABC not a condom program

Dr. Gary Rose, president of the Austin, Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said that while the ABC program the first lady touted does mention condoms, it does not, in fact, advocate the "practice safe sex" message she declared.

"In Uganda, ABc is capital A, capital B, little 'c,'" Rose said. "Condoms are not the solution. The solution is behavior change, and that's the A and the B - abstinence until marriage and being faithful in marriage."

Uganda has had phenomenal success with ABc, Rose said, cutting the rate of HIV infection by more than half. But the fundamental message behind the program is that when high-risk sexual behaviors are discouraged, their incidence goes down.

As part of that, abstinence until marriage and fidelity within marriage are the most important factors in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Condoms do not play a primary role in reducing HIV/AIDS transmission.

"You can push condoms till the cows come home, and you are never going to make a dent - at least a significant dent - in this epidemic," Rose told Cybercast News Service.

"That has been part and parcel of the program that world organizations have thrown at Africa. They have thrown condoms at Africa - and that doesn't solve it. In Botswana, which has a very, very high incidence of HIV, they have more condoms per man than almost any other country in Africa," Rose added.

Rose said the scientific research shows that condoms reduce the risk of acquiring AIDS by 85 percent.

"But the problem is that condoms only lower your risk for other sexually transmitted diseases - like gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia - by 50 percent," he added.

"And if you have one of those other sexually transmitted diseases, then it is much more likely that you can become infected with AIDS. If you have any of those other diseases, the lining of the tissue is already interrupted and HIV can gain entry," he said.

Mrs. Bush's op-ed appeared in connection with World AIDS Day - a fact not lost on the AIDS activist community.

"We were pleased to see it," Johnson said. "I thought Mrs. Bush showed a genuine compassion about the epidemic and the people who are impacted. But more importantly, it showed an awareness of the fact that, as she said in the editorial, 'AIDS is not over.' It's not over here in the United States, and it is important for Americans to know that."

Unruh, however, suggests the first lady may be trying to walk a politically correct line.

"I think that's what happens in a political world," she added. "But really when it comes down to a face-to-face with your child, it has to be a very clear and consistent message. Condoms don't protect the heart. And condoms don't always work."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 80 percent of the cases of HIV infection in America occur among homosexual men and IV drug users.

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