Republicans Are Trying to Tank a Lifesaving HIV Program Over Abortion

PEPFAR is a signature achievement of President George W. Bush, but this isn't your mom's GOP.

Republicans Are Trying to Tank a Lifesaving HIV Program Over Abortion
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., speaks during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the administration foreign policy priorities on Capitol Hill on March 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo:Associated Press (AP)

It’s been two decades since President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the program has been credited with saving more than 25 million lives worldwide. But now Republicans are trying to torch the HIV-prevention program over claims that money given to local groups indirectly supports those groups’ separate advocacy on abortion.

PEPFAR is the world’s largest health program devoted to a single medical condition as it supports HIV prevention efforts in more than 50 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Money from the program is used to distribute medicines to prevent and treat HIV and conduct research, and officials also say it helps strengthen global diplomatic ties.

Last week, Senate Republicans objected to using a defense bill to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years before it’s set to expire this fall. House Republicans also oppose the effort. Instead, Republicans want to vote on a single year of funding and restore Trump-era restrictions that blocked funding to groups that discuss abortion, or give money to other organizations that provide or promote abortion. It’s the so-called “Mexico City policy” that Republican presidents usually enact upon entering office, despite no evidence that PEPFAR funds promote abortion. (Let me get this straight: Conservatives believe money is fungible when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to the spouses of Supreme Court justices? Interesting!)

Congress has reauthorized PEPFAR three times. Groups opposed to a “clean” authorization with no additional funding requirements include conservative heavyweights like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, Family Research Council, and the Heritage Foundation.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights & International Organizations, supported the program in January, but changed his tune after Heritage released a May report critical of PEPFAR. “Every single statute protecting life in Africa is under siege right now. The children are worth the fight,” Smith told the Washington Post. He’s apparently much less concerned about whether those children will become orphaned by a preventable disease or live to be middle-aged.

Congress is currently in recess, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he plans to push for a vote on a stand-alone reauthorization bill when lawmakers return in September. Menendez, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Politico, “We can’t reach our global goal of ending the HIV epidemic by 2030 through 1-year increments.”

Other advocates were more blunt about the impact of GOP stonewalling. Shepherd Smith, a co-founder of the Children’s AIDS Fund International who’s worked with PEPFAR since its inception, told the Post, “It’ll be death by 1,000 cuts in the future if it has to go up for reauthorization every year.”

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