In defending the cack-handed comments of the incoming Archbishop of Glasgow about the late David Cairns, the Scottish Catholic Church’s media spokesman, Peter Kearney, made some startling claims. Startling, mainly, for the way they exposed the moral and intellectual vacuum at the core of his reasoning.
Kearney went on Scotland Tonight on a mission to deflect attention from the aspersions cast by Bishop Tartaglia about Mr Cairns, a gay MP who died at the age of 44 from that grievous moral afflliction known as pancreatic cancer. (Before becoming an MP Cairns had served as a priest, in what appears to be a unique incidence of homosexuality within the Catholic clergy.)
Kearney’s main contention was that there had been a “conspiracy of silence” to quell the “vast array of medical evidence to suggest that same-sex behaviour is hazardous, is harmful, and is dangerous”.
Despite the supposed wealth of material at his disposal, he only managed to produce one solid statistic, from a study showing, in his words, that “the life expectancy of a practising homosexual man will be reduced by something between 12 and 20 years”.
Even so, it was a remarkably precise claim that seemed worthy of further investigation. Could it really be true that peer-reviewed medical research had shown that living the gay life will hasten a man’s death by 20 years?
It turns out the source of Kearney’s assertion is a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, based on HIV infection rates and mortality rates for gay and bisexual men in a Canadian city.
The figures are genuine, the study is credible and the authors do indeed conclude that “life expectancy at age 20 years for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for all men”. Although the range is slightly wider than the 12 to 20 years cited by Kearney, the broad point is the same.
What Kearney didn’t mention is that the study was published in 1997 and used data gathered between 1987 and 1992. So the material on which he bases his argument is at least 20 years old. And this is where the case rapidly starts to unravel.
Since 1992 two big changes have taken place in the arena of HIV infection. Firstly, the disease has spread beyond the gay population, to which it was largely confined in the late 1980s.
Since the figures quoted by Kearney were taken from Canadian research, let’s stay in that country. By the end of 2005 an estimated 65,000 Canadians were HIV positive, 51% of them as a result of gay sex between men. The rate for heterosexual sex was 27%.
So gay sex still carries a higher risk – but the historic record of all HIV/Aids cases since the disease was first reported shows that 76% were located in the gay male population. It follows that in the period 1987-92, the proportion was much higher than it is today.
But the seismic change has been in the quality of antiretroviral drugs available to HIV sufferers. A study in Britain found that in the late 1990s, an HIV patient aged 20 could expect to live to the age of 50. A decade later, that prognosis had gone up to 66, and people who began treatment at an early stage of the disease had a life expectancy of 75.
Peter Kearney’s statement ignores the basic fact that in the 20 years since the data he relies on was collected, life expectancy for all Aids sufferers has increased dramatically. It is dishonest to argue, as he does, that HIV infection is an inherent danger of “practising” homosexuality, or that it will take “12 to 20 years” off a sufferer’s life.
Both these claims are misleading, and given Kearney’s explicit use of the present tense I can only conclude that the deception is intentional. This is not spiritual leadership: it is the kind of statistical manipulation that is the last resort of third-rank contenders in a US Presidential election.
Mercifully, Scotland in the last century took the enlightened step of emancipating Catholic education, with the result that most Scottish Catholics are perfectly capable of recognising the comments of Mr Kearney and Bishop Tartaglia for the poisonous nonsense that they are. The Scottish Government at least had the intelligence to understand that this noisy sideshow should not be confused with the real debate about extending the right to marry.
In their clumsy attempts to revive the discredited argument that Aids is somehow a ‘gay plague’, Kearney and his boss undermine the credibility of the Catholic Church and send cringe waves through their congregation. But more than anything, they make themselves look like fools. If only there were some kind of higher power that could save them from themselves.
(Incidentally, as agreed with James Doleman, I’ll be donating £10 to Stonewall in connection with this research.)