CDC chief speaks out on same-sex unions

Staff writer, with CNA

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 - Page 5

There were mixed responses earlier this week after Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Deputy Director-General Shih Wen-yih (施文儀) spelled out his support for same-sex marriage, becoming the first senior official in the country to do so publicly.

On Monday, Shih said in a Facebook post that same-sex marriage is not just a basic human right protected by the Constitution, but is also beneficial from a health perspective and would help to prevent and control the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“Who exactly is bothered by same-sex marriage?” he asked.

It would not be difficult to push for the legalization of same-sex marriage, unless people judge the issue in a discriminatory way, he said.

The health official said that homosexuals are prone to more risky sexual behavior because they are not widely accepted by society. He said such people would likely treat marriage with more respect than their heterosexual counterparts if they were given the legal right to marry their same-sex partner.

“Legalizing same-sex marriage is just one small step in the prevention and control of the spread of HIV/AIDS,” he said.

According to Shih, it costs about NT$350,000 (US$11,660) per year to treat an HIV/AIDS patient, or a total of NT$10 million if one assumes that the government must foot the bill for each new HIV patient under the National Health Insurance system for 30 years.

Based on the nearly 1,400 men who were infected with HIV in Taiwan through unsafe sex last year alone, that adds up to a long-term bill of NT$14 billion, the official said.

More than half of the CDC’s annual budget is spent on drugs to control HIV.

“If the spending continues on such a scale, the country’s finances will definitely collapse,” Shih said.

Shih’s statement drew mixed responses.

Ko Nai-ying (柯乃熒), an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing at National Cheng Kung University, said same-sex marriage should not be linked to the work being done to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Having an intimate partner is a basic human right, she said. The private Taiwan Love and Hope Association, where she is secretary-general, advocates the legalization of same-sex marriage, but rejects the idea that legalization is the only measure to prevent and control the spread of HIV/AIDS, she said.

Linking HIV infection to homosexual groups not only sullies the public image of certain groups of people, but can also lead people to ignore the risk of contracting HIV, Ko said.

She said that over the past two years, the number of people infected with the virus has increased among student groups, with 25 percent of new HIV-infected patients admitted by the Cheng Kung University Hospital in the past five years being students, some of whom are homosexual, while others are heterosexual, she said.

A lesbian couple who tied the knot in Taiwan’s first-ever Buddhist same-sex wedding on Aug. 11 said they had sent a letter to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in which they called on the authorities to legalize same-sex marriage.

Although they received a reply from the Presidential Office saying that the Ministry of the Interior has been asked to look into the matter, they said they feel “the government seems to have no intention of dealing with the issue.”

Every time the government encounters the same-sex marriage issue, it pushes it aside and says alternative sexual orientation and marriages have yet to be widely accepted by the general public in Taiwan.

“Same-sex marriage is a basic human right. Why should it require the consent of other people?” they asked.

The Ministry of Justice has said that same-sex marriage is not just about the two people concerned, but remains an issue that concerns identity, inheritance, insurance beneficiaries and parental rights.

According to legal experts, there is no Asian country where same-sex marriage has been legalized. If Taiwan wants to be the first in the region to do so, it should first establish a set of same-sex partnership regulations to govern the rights and benefits for same-sex couples who live together, the experts suggested.

A study commissioned by the Ministry of Justice indicated that while most countries worldwide have no regulations in place to protect the rights and benefits of same-sex couples, the UN as well as international human rights organizations have begun to pay greater attention to the human rights of homosexuals.

Issues concerning homosexual partnerships is likely is to become one of the most important topics for this generation, the study concludes.

According to CDC statistics, the number of people with HIV in Taiwan has hit 22,000. As of Aug. 18, 1,404 people have been confirmed as having contracted HIV this year alone.

Among the new patients, 420, or nearly 30 percent, are under 24 years old, with the youngest just 15, the tallies show.

Hsieh Szu-min (謝思民), a doctor of infectious diseases at National Taiwan University, said the map of HIV infected-groups is changing.

The number of heterosexuals with HIV has increased in recent years, he said, adding that the hospital has found that one in four new patients is a drug addict and that one in four is heterosexual.

He advised those who practice risky sexual behavior — such as one-night stands and intercourse without wearing condoms — to get tested anonymously for HIV. Even if found to be positive, the infection can be controlled with regular medication, he said.

The lifespan of patients with HIV may be no shorter than that of people who do not have the virus if they receive proper treatment, he said.