The Spike in Congenital Syphilis

This cultural moment considers limiting self-expression immoral, no matter how dangerous the diseases linked to that expression are.  


John Stonestreet

Maria Baer

The United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of syphilis cases among newborn babies, according to a recent report from the Center for Disease Control. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that can be passed from moms to babies in utero. Last year, more than 3,700 babies tested positive for the disease, a 30% increase in a single year and a tenfold increase in the past 10 years.  

According to the CDC, the situation is “dire.” To reverse the trends, the report proposed, “[a]ddressing missed opportunities for prevention, primarily timely testing and appropriate treatment of syphilis during pregnancy.”Likewise, a Houston-area doctor quoted in an NBC News article about the report said, “It is unbelievable how this could all be prevented if we just had patients get in for screening and treatment.” 

During the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s, some acted as if the HIV virus could infect anyone at any moment, as if how it spread was a total mystery. This mentality is even more common today, especially among drug companies promoting medication to treat HIV. The recent biopic Bohemian Rhapsody takes a similar approach to the story of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen. Mercury hid the fact that he had AIDS from all but his closest confidants until the days before his death, despite continuing to have multiple sexual partners and possibly playing an outsized role in the AIDS epidemic. The movie, however, depicts Mercury as a hero of self-expression and a victim of horrible illness. His promiscuity is never morally evaluated and barely mentioned. 

It’s considered immoral, in this cultural moment, to limit anyone’s self-expression. The diseases and dangers linked to irresponsible sexual expression are disconnected from the behaviors. Instead, they’re often treated as evidence of injustice, as if the moral duty of medicine is to free sexual self-expression from any consequences.In this framing, risky sexual behavior is inevitable. Not only is it immoral to suggest that people stop doing those things that spread HIV and infect babies with syphilis, but to do so would be to suggest the impossible.  

This pessimistic, deterministic view of humanity is demonstrably false. We often say politics is downstream from culture. The state has significant power to influence behavior. For example, in 1984, only 14% of Americanswore seat belts. I’m likely not the only one who remembers bouncing around unrestrained in the back of the family station wagon on long road trips. Just three years later, after 30 states enacted seat belt laws, that percentage tripled to 42%. Last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 90% of Americans faithfully buckled up while on the roads.  

A similar phenomenon happened with drunk driving. Four years after the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Congress raised the legal drinking age to 21. MADD then launched an effort to replace the word “accident” with the word “crash” in common parlance, predicting that this would reinforce in people’s minds that drunk-driving collisions were crimes. These efforts to shift culture worked. Since 1982, the number of drunk-driving deaths in Americahas fallen by more than half.  

Despite this success, most government-funded efforts to combat the spread of sexually transmitted infections never mentionrisky sexual behavior.Creators of proven, effective abstinence education resources testify how oddly difficult it is to even gain access to public schools. Even doctors concerned about the spread of congenital syphilis cannot seem to bring themselves to recommend sexual risk avoidance.  

At the root of the selective outrage is a warped idea of what it means to be human. A worldview that says humans are fundamentallyincapable of practicing sexual abstinence assumes that human beings are mere animals. This is a perfect example of what former President George W. Bush once called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” 

God’s design for sex is good, and the boundaries He designed with it are also good. Not only is it possible for humans to abstain from acting on all their desires, but it’s also best, spiritually and physically, when we are able to delay gratification for some higher ends. When we violate God’s created boundaries, we violate the design and put ourselves and others at risk. Sadly, the skyrocketing cases of babies born with congenital syphilis are just the latest example of kids paying the highest price for adults’ bad ideas.  

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to 


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