STD Awareness: Prevention vs. Punishment

Before antibiotics, syphilis could kill and gonorrhea was responsible for most cases of infertility. Both diseases could spread from husband to wife to baby, potentially destroying families. So you’d think medical breakthroughs in prevention and cures would be welcomed with open arms.

The actual history, like the humans who create it, is much more complicated.


Compassion, rather than fear and guilt, should guide medical practice.


During World War I, sexually transmitted diseases were a huge problem — second only to the 1918 flu pandemic in the number of sick days they caused (7 million, if you’re counting). The Roaring Twenties saw a sexual revolution, and by World War II, the military was once more fretting about losing manpower to debilitating infections that drew men away from the front lines and into the sick bays.

The armed forces did what it could to suppress prostitution and distract soldiers with recreational activities. But the human sex drive could not be contained: The vast majority of U.S. soldiers were having sex — even an estimated half of married soldiers were not faithful to their wives during WWII. Victory depended on soldiers’ health, so during both WWI and WWII, the military provided its sexually active soldiers with “prophylaxis,” medical treatments that could reduce risk for venereal disease — or VD, as sexually transmitted diseases were called back then.

Anyone who thinks condoms are a hassle or “don’t feel good” should read medical historian Allan M. Brandt’s description of a WWI-era prophylactic station, which soldiers were instructed to visit after sexual contact: Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 2, Belief and Mission

Ms. Wattleton speaks out against George H.W. Bush’s gag rule, which banned any mention of abortion in federally funded family-planning programs.

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this second installment, we discuss her religious beliefs and their influence on her work, which came up often in our conversation.

Religion was a strong influence during Faye Wattleton’s childhood and remains so in her adult life. She grew up in a fundamentalist family, and that religion, along with her experiences as a nurse, brought her to a belief in individual freedom that was absolute, including the conviction that every woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices.

When I asked about her work for reproductive rights, she said, “My view about that is perhaps most reflective of my religious upbringing, with respect to who shall judge. Judge not that you be not judged.”


“Our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.”


That religious upbringing was shaped by the fact that her mother was an ordained minister in the Church of God, and her calling determined the course of Wattleton family life. While Faye was still little, this calling took her and her parents away from St. Louis and the safety of extended family. When she reached school age, her parents left her with families within the church, each year in a different place. During this time, she learned to rely on herself and think independently, perhaps preparing her to be a leader while keeping her within the protective bubble of the greater Church of God community.

The Church of God is Christian, Protestant, foundational, evangelical, and charismatic. Members believe in prayer, the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible, personal salvation, and the unique, individual revelation of the Holy Spirit.* Ms. Wattleton often heard her mother preach and witnessed the emotional responses of her listeners in churches and revival meetings.

While her mother evangelized, bringing others to what she saw as the only way to God, Ms. Wattleton’s sense of mission came from the conviction that each person acts within unique life circumstances that must be respected. When I asked about this difference between her mother and herself, she replied that it “probably was due to my early training as a nurse. I went to college as a 16-year-old, graduated at 20. And so I was really deeply influenced by my professional training and exposure [to other people’s lives and problems]. It’s possible that, had I chosen a different profession, I may have seen life differently, but this is the profession that I chose.” Continue reading