Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

AIDS Changes Attitudes in Mexico Family Planners, Churches Clash over How to Address Once-Taboo Topic of Sexuality

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

AIDS Changes Attitudes in Mexico Family Planners, Churches Clash over How to Address Once-Taboo Topic of Sexuality

Article excerpt

TELEVISION and radio spots hawking contraceptives and advocating "safe sex" in this predominantly Roman Catholic, family-oriented culture are a dramatic break with the past.

Topics relating to sexuality were taboo in Mexico before acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) became a public issue here. Now concern about the spread of the disease is unlocking doors throughout Latin America that were once closed to sex educators, family planners, and health officials. It's also challenging church leaders to sharpen their own message on sex and morality.

"Many schools which shunned our services are now begging us to come," says Gabriela Rodriguez of the 26-year-old Mexican Foundation for Family Planning, a nongovernmental organization.

Manuel Urbina Fuentes, head of Mexico's National Population Council, says family-planning programs have helped produce a 50 percent drop in the average number of children per Mexican woman over the last 20 years. Dr. Urbina sees AIDS-related attitudinal changes as a key element in pushing the fertility rate even lower.

For example, condoms are more widely available in stores now. And, Urbina says, "a big step has been opening up the mass media to a use of language socially unacceptable before."

While some government officials and nongovernmental organizations see this change as something of a silver lining to the AIDS cloud, church officials here are concerned that the burgeoning promotion of "safe sex" is undermining Christian morals.

"It's a worrisome trend," says Monsignor Ramon Gordinez, secretary general of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, which represents the views of some 90 Catholic bishops.

Biblical teachings define sexual relations outside marriage as sinful. The Catholic Church considers the use of contraceptive devices within marriage as wrong, too. But outside of the churches and temples, the messages of abstinence and fidelity are not getting much of an airing.

"We don't have the access to radio and television. We don't have the resources of government agencies. We don't have access to public hospitals and health clinics," Monsignor Gordinez says. Booklet states position

The Catholic Church claims 90 percent of the Mexican population as adherents. But more than a century ago, the church acquired enough wealth and power to be relegated to the status of enemy of the state. Thus churches in Mexico have had almost no legal standing until this year. Political involvement was illegal. Even privately owned media outlets often restrict access to church officials for fear of jeopardizing their broadcast licenses or government advertising revenue.

In June, the Catholic Church here published "Pastoral Instruction About AIDS," a 22-page booklet stating the church's position on AIDS. It also recommends church officials use the media to broadcast its message and "work with health officials in the prevention, control, and treatment of people affected by AIDS."

Gordinez admits that so far the church has made no special effort that he knows of to prevent or control AIDS. Most outreach work has focused on comforting those affected with the disease. "Our reputation is of great wealth, but our resources are modest. The priests continue to do the principal work in moral orientation," Gordinez says.

By contrast, in Brazil the Catholic Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns of Sao Paulo was recently named to the National Commission to Combat AIDS. His appointment has raised a few eyebrows, given that one of the goals of the commission is to spread the use of condoms as a means of preventing AIDS.

The equivalent government organization in Mexico, the National Council for the Prevention and Control of AIDS (Conasida), would also welcome the participation of Mexican churches. …

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