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Sen. Barack Obama's Speech on World AIDS Day 2006

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Sen. Barack Obama's Speech on World AIDS Day 2006

Senator Barack Obama

AIDS Is an Issue of both Science & Values

Here's the thing - my faith tells me that Leo's family is my family. We are all sick because of AIDS - and we are all tested by this crisis. It is a test not only of our willingness to respond, but of our ability to look past the artificial divisions and debates that have often shaped that response.

When you go to places like Africa and you see this problem up close, you realize that it's not a question of either treatment or prevention - or even what kind of prevention - it is all of the above.

It is not an issue of either science or values - it is both.

Yes, there must be more money spent on this disease. But there must also be a change in hearts and minds; in cultures and attitudes. Neither philanthropist nor scientist; neither government nor church, can solve this problem on their own - AIDS must be an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Let's talk about what these efforts involve.

Need for Realism to Stop Spread of Infections

First, if we hope to win this fight, we must stop new infections - we must do what we can to prevent people from contracting HIV in the first place.

Now, too often, the issue of prevention has been framed in either/or terms. For some, the only way to prevent the disease is for men and women to change their sexual behavior - in particular, to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.

For others, such a prescription is unrealistic; they argue that we need to provide people with the tools they need to protect themselves from the virus, regardless of their sexual practices - in particular, by increasing the use of condoms, as well as by developing new methods, like microbicides, that women can initiate themselves to prevent transmission during sex. And in the debate surrounding how we should tackle the scourge of AIDS, we often see each side questioning the other's motives, and thereby impeding progress.

For me, this is a false argument.

Spiritual Issues of AIDS Prevention

Let me say this - I don't think we can deny that there is a moral and spiritual component to prevention - that in too many places all over the world where AIDS is prevalent - including our own country, by the way - the relationship between men and women, between sexuality and spirituality, has broken down, and needs to be repaired.

It was striking to see this as I traveled through South Africa and Kenya. Again and again, I heard stories of men and women contracting HIV because sex was no longer part of a sacred covenant, but a mechanical physical act; because men had visited prostitutes and brought the disease home to their wives, or young girls had been subjected to rape and abuse.

These are issues of prevention we cannot walk away from. When a husband thinks it's acceptable to hide his infidelity from his wife, it's not only a sin, it's a potential death sentence.

And when rape is still seen as a woman's fault and a woman's shame, but promiscuity is a man's prerogative, it is a problem of the heart that no government can solve.

It is, however, a place where local ministries and churches like Saddleback can, and have, made a real difference - by providing people with a moral framework to make better choices.

Abstinence & Fidelity as Ideal, but Not Reality

Having said that, I also believe that we cannot ignore that abstinence and fidelity may too often be the ideal and not the reality - that we are dealing with flesh and blood men and women and not abstractions - and that if condoms and potentially microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, they should be made more widely available.

I know that there are those who, out of sincere religious conviction, oppose such measures. And with these folks, I must respectfully but unequivocally disagree. I do not accept the notion that those who make mistakes in their lives should be given an effective death sentence.

Nor am I willing to stand by and allow those who are entirely innocent - wives who, because of the culture they live in, often have no power to refuse sex with their husbands, or children who are born with the infection as a consequence of their parent's behavior -suffer when condoms or other measures would have kept them from harm.

Removing the Stigma of HIV-AIDS Testing

Another area where we can make significant progress in prevention is by removing the stigma that goes along with getting tested for HIV-AIDS. The idea that in some places, nine in ten people with HIV have no idea they're infected is more than frightening - it's a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.

So we need to show people that just as there is no shame in going to the doctor for a blood test or a CAT scan or a mammogram, there is no shame in going for an HIV test. Because while there was once a time when a positive result gave little hope, today the earlier you know, the faster you can get help.

My wife Michelle and I were able to take the test on our trip to Africa, after the Center for Disease Control informed us that by getting a simple 15 minute test, we may have encouraged as many as half-a-million Kenyans to get tested as well.

Rick Warren has also taken the test. Sam Brownback and I took it today. And I encourage others in public life to do the same. We've got to spread the word to as many people as possible. It's time for us to set an example for others to follow.

Of course, even as we work diligently to slow the rate of new infection, we also have a responsibility to treat the 40 million people who are already living with HIV.

In some ways, this should be the easy part. Because we know what works. We know how to save people's lives. We know the medicine is out there and we know that wealthy countries can afford to do more.

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