Global Gag Rule Poses Moral Challenge for U.S. HIV/AIDS Funding

By Marjorie Signer

The pending reauthorization of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, commonly called PEPFAR, is a clear challenge for our government to demonstrate its commitment to human dignity and life.

PEPFAR would be expanded dramatically by legislation, S 2731, now before the Senate and already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (and with the long name of “The Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008, H.R. 5501”).

Funding would be tripled to $50 billion over the next five years. While the increased funding is a tremendous step forward, the House version also contains ideological restrictions that will prevent the funds from most effectively containing the spread of HIV by blocking the participation of family planning programs.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and our partners in the interfaith community are urging the Senate to hear the voices of people of faith on the issue of AIDS relief. These are people from diverse traditions who share common principles of justice and compassion and the belief thatwe have a moralresponsibility to help the vulnerable and the sick to the full extent of our ability.

Simply put, we want PEPFAR to be reauthorized and we welcome the increased funds — but we want language restricting the participation of family planning organizations to be removed.

This language requires that organizations must comply with the global gag rule — the requirement that foreign organizations receiving U.S. funding must not provide abortion counseling or services or conduct advocacy on abortion policy. We believe that an ethical policy will support the best and most flexible approaches possible to contain the spread of HIV. Experience shows that involving family planning organizations will ensure the greatest level of access to information and services for women and girls.

We also are concerned by an onerous reporting provision in the bill that would require Congress to be informed when countries with generalized epidemics fall below 50 percent of funds spent on abstinence and fidelity programs. Instead of promoting programs that allow for flexibility and are tailored to the needs of individual communities, the new reporting policy will restrict delivery of comprehensive and integrated information.

Those involved in our community response on PEPFAR include 26 Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, ecumenical and interfaith agencies and bodies. We are actively reaching out to our constituencies to underscore that this issue involves our faith commitments, including our commitment to action for social justice.

HIV and AIDS have had devastating consequences throughout the developing world – consequences that can be prevented by empowering the most vulnerable populations with proven prevention strategies.

The United States launched PEPFAR in 2003 as the largest investment ever made by any nation to combat a single disease. PEPFAR has successfully brought AIDS treatment, care and HIV prevention to millions of people who would not otherwise have had services. But constraints on prevention and care are contrary to the authentic moral concerns of the American public for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. The religious and religiously affiliated organizations opposing these constraints have pointed out that they directly affect women, youth, and socially marginalized groups – those who increasingly bear the greatest burden of this pandemic and who often receive medical care mainly or only from family planning organizations.

It is our moral duty to challenge our government to adopt the most effective, humane and just policy to contain the HIV/AIDS pandemic, without ideological restrictions and constraints.

Marjorie Signer is the director of communications for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC, headquartered in Washington, D.C.


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