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Preventing HIV Transmission: The Role of Sterile Needles and Bleach
you. Many of those hardest hit are minority communities like the ones I represent. I believe government has an obligation to do more than just help people use illegal drugs more safely.… To my way of thinking, the continuing debate over needle exchange programs only diverts us from the real issue … that is expanding our capacity to get drug users into effective comprehensive treatment.
When the African American religious and political leaders who have expressed opposition to needle exchange and bleach distribution programs have been convinced that these programs can be valuable in reducing HIV infection and the spread of AIDS and that the commitment to support drug treatment programs will be continued, they have been more willing to give their support. Essentially, their objections are less grounded in moral arguments than in political and practical ones.
The African American church has a long history of addressing the health and human service needs of its members. Awareness of the mounting toll of deaths within a particular community and the need for drastic action to counter the trend, therefore, has sometimes overridden community objections that were at least partly founded in moral and religious views. Some African American church leaders, like Dr. Calvin O. Butts in New York City, have stated that they would not oppose distributing clean needles (Shipp and Navarro, 1991). Butts stated (as cited in Elovich and Sorge, 1991:168):
I'm one who spoke out very harshly against the distribution of condoms and the distribution of needles saying that it's cooperation with evil but sometimes I think that God can mean what people think is evil for good. And if it's going to save lives and it's going to allow for an arresting of this disease in our community … then I think that these measures are not bad measures and a lot of us are going to have to think real hard about how we oppose things that could stop this disease. In drastic times, you have to take drastic actions.
African American mayors of several large cities—such as New York, Baltimore, New Haven, and Washington, D.C.—have supported needle exchange programs. It should be noted that a good number of African American clergy are also politicians. The church plays and will continue to play a pivotal role in policy debates and legislative action concerning these issues. According to Billingsley and Caldwell (1991), 84 percent of African American adults consider themselves to be religious, and almost 70 percent are members of a church. Lincoln and Mamiya (1990) estimated African American church membership at 24 million. Since 65,000 to 75,000 African American churches of various denominations exist in the United States, it is certainly possible that a wider diversity of opinion exists than has been apparent to date. Findings from the Black Election Study demonstrated that