AIDS Changes Attitudes in Mexico

Family planners, churches clash over how to address once-taboo topic of sexuality

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.

"We'd love to have the Catholic Church participate. The church doesn't like our messages, and this is a very Catholic country. That closes a lot of doors to us," says Carlos Ulices Pego Pratt, a spokesman for Conasida. "Fidelity is an important message. Abstinence is best. But the reality is that there are many Catholic followers who practice sex with many partners. They need to use condoms."

Only one of the half-dozen AIDS pamphlets now produced by Conasida even mentions the option of abstinence as a way of preventing AIDS. The focus is on "safe sex," principally through using condoms.

Mexico has the second-largest number of reported AIDS cases in Latin America, behind Brazil. It ranks 11th in the world in terms of AIDS cases, in line with its global population ranking.

Conasida's target audiences are Mexican youths, professionals, and urban street dwellers. Mr. Pego laments that Conasida's budget of about $3 million is not enough for the task. But its outreach does include mass-media advertisements, a hotline (taking 150 calls a day), and weekly training sessions for members of labor unions, private companies, social organizations, and educators to become local AIDS counselors. Although the Mexican department of education has so far refused to include AIDS prevention i n new government textbooks, Conasida is in the final stages of producing a pamphlet for mass distribution in the school system.

Nongovernmental organizations are also exploring new ways of educating the population about AIDS prevention. They're doing plays for youth groups, making videos, and producing radio soap operas. One controversial radio series is a 52-part sex education program blending teen testimonies, rock music, and drama. Protests close officesWhile Mexican churches have had little input into AIDS and sex-education messages, on occasion they have disrupted the process.

The Mexican Foundation for Family Planning held a seminar at a local university in the city of San Luis Potosi in June. Within days, a local Catholic priest, an anti-abortion group, and a local politician up for reelection had organized a campaign accusing the organization of distributing pornography and promoting sex among teens.

On June 21, the state governor acceded to the protesters demands and ordered the organization's eight offices closed. "In our 26 years of work, this has never happened before," says Ms. Rodriguez of Mexican Foundation for Family Planning.

Pego, Conasida's spokesman, concedes that their literature is often quite graphic. "This is not a very literate society. The pamphlets have to be graphic if we are going to instruct people how to save lives," he says.

Church and health officials do agree on one point: Mass media messages tend to educate the population to the existence of the problem and steer people toward organizations equipped to deal with questions. But changing actions and attitudes is most effectively done in face-to-face conversations. In that respect, church officials believe they can be as influential as AIDS workers.

"People are looking for solutions. We have an opportunity to work together to develop solutions, individually as churches and collectively as a society," says Methodist bishop Raul Ruiz Avalia, who was recently invited to participate on a television talk show dealing with AIDS. He argues that "safe-sex programs don't get to the root of the problem. We, as churches, don't want to be dogmatic but we do have `sex education' programs which get at the root - that is maintaining the sanctity of the body, the m arriage, and living in accord with the laws of love. People need to respect one another."

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