The First Lady Talks Rubbers

One of these reactions is situationally appropriate. The other is not. Laura Bush comes out (mildly, but comes out nonetheless) for condom use. Do we laugh, or do we cry? The first lady toured South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda last week, standing up for her version of African women’s rights. She pressed for an end to domestic violence and for new legal protections for African women all too often subjugated to violence and sexual abuse.

Bush visited HIV-positive mothers in South Africa who are working to de-stigmatize AIDS. Experts say Africa will make scant progress toward stemming its HIV/AIDS epidemic without persuading Africans, who are leery of even discussing the issue, to start talking publicly about it, to get tested and then to practice safe sex or no sex at all.

While meeting with these mothers, “Dr.” Laura taught the women her version of the ABCs. ABC stands for Abstinence, Be faithful and the correct and consistent use of Condoms as a last resort.

Wait a minute. Did we hear right? A member of the Bush family, darling of evangelical Christians, advocating condom use (even if it is only as a last resort)? Mother of God, I must be having a flashback.

Consider the monumental weight of the moment. Conservatives concede condoms are crucial. But the Christian right likes its women pregnant (and some would say barefoot) and condoms are a form of birth control promulgated by the vile left. Doesn’t that violate every biblical principle down to the non-Darwinian molecular level? All right, I admit the use of hyperbole. But here’s why it’s so tough to decide whether the proper response to Bush’s support for condoms merits cheers or tears. It is truly evolutionary that she would advocate condom use, even if only as a last resort. It’s the political equivalent of Right saying, “See, the Left was correct all along on sex education.”

But the first two branches of her tripartite pitch are glaringly troubling, because they were delivered to precisely the wrong audience.

Weigh the facts about the African AIDS epidemic. There are several reasons why the disease’s spread has been so vigorous and so swift. The first reason is the high rate of rape in some African countries. In South Africa, for example, government statistics show the rape rate in 2003-2004 was 113.7 per 100,000. Among that country’s 45 million citizens, one in nine is HIV-positive. By comparison, the U.S. rate of rape in the year 2000 (and the U.S. rate is higher than that in many other developed nations) was just more than 32 per 100,000.

How, precisely, does the first lady believe the teaching of abstinence should apply in cases of rape? “Excuse me, Mr. Rapist, shouldn’t we stop this right here and right now, so you won’t transmit your HIV-positive status to me?” What’s a rape victim supposed to do?

What’s worse, child rape is a much more common occurrence in some African countries than in developed nations, due to something referred to as the myth of the “Virgin Cure.” Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Web site reports that the myth actually originated in 16th-century Europe. It was widespread in Victorian England; “despite the strong socio-cultural emphasis on sexual morality, religiosity, rectitude and family values, there was a widespread belief that sexual intercourse with a virgin girl was a cure for syphilis, gonorrhea, and other STDs.”

Like many other vicissitudes Europe has visited on Africa, the Virgin Cure myth has now taken hold in some African societies and accounts for high rates of HIV/AIDS among young African girls. Again, Laura Bush, how is teaching abstinence at all relevant in the case of child rape victims?

So, “Dr.” Laura, we cheer your inclusion of the C word (condoms, not cancer) in your talks with African women. We appreciate the toll your advocacy of condom use will take on your friendship with some members of America’s hard right. But we lament the opportunity you lost to have taught these women the CBAs, instead of the ABCs, to prove you are hip to the differences between your reality and theirs.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)