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Undignified
The AIDS-funding bill needs a rewind.


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During the recent six-hour markup of H.R. 1298, the Global AIDS bill, a House committee voted to include an amendment to prohibit giving HIV/AIDS funding to groups that support prostitution and sex-trafficking. Most of us would expect no less. But take a closer look.

Passed by a meager two votes, the amendment had a final vote tally of 24-22. In other words, nearly half of the representatives in the House International Relations Committee approve of giving money to groups supporting prostitution and sex-trafficking.

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Granted, some individuals support the legalization of prostitution. To sanitize the industry, they call prostitutes “sex workers.” But we’re not talking about somewhat sophisticated madams or super-liberated individuals. According to the State Department, we’re talking about between 700,000 and 4 million people, mostly women and children, who are bought and sold as sex toys, used and abused at another’s whim. We are talking about people who are kept against their will and forced to perform degrading actions which also put them at an extremely high risk for contracting and spreading epidemic diseases.

Most Americans have basic moral standards that condemn the abuse of other human beings. These are reflected in the president’s directive to eliminate sex trafficking, signed February 25, 2003. Not incidentally, the bill fails to meet the challenge set forth in this directive.

The vote on the sex-trafficking amendment proved undeniably that the debate on the Hill is pure politics. Need proof? The vote was split exactly along party lines. Every Republican voted in favor of it and every Democrat voted against it.

What we saw played out in the vote on this amendment points to an even deeper issue. As it stands, the bill is deeply flawed. We know that the AIDS epidemic provides a great threat to developing countries throughout the world. No serious research downplays this threat. However, a phony bill which squanders our money on bureaucracy and hypothetical cures will fail every person we claim to be helping.

We know abstinence works and family groups were told that this would be incorporated into the bill. But no priority is given to abstinence. Everywhere that abstinence is mentioned (a total of three times in the bill prior to markup), condoms are mentioned as well and given equal footing. Regardless of one’s moral position on condoms, the facts speak for themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, condoms are not 100-percent effective against HIV/AIDS infection even when used correctly. They have a relative protection rate of about 85 percent if they are used correctly every time.

Meanwhile, Uganda has provided an alternative to condom hype. In 1995, when Uganda began to address HIV/AIDS by emphasizing abstinence, the country had an infection rate of 18.5 percent. By 2000, that rate had fallen to 6.1 percent. No other country has had this success. In fact, no other country has decreased its rate of infection despite the prevalence of condom programs.

At the same time, condom advocates fail to note that condoms provide virtually no protection against human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus associated with at least 90 percent of all cases of cervical cancer in the United States. Do the developing countries need to add cervical cancer to their roster of national health issues?

H.R. 1298 also has no provisions to respect local cultures and traditions. HIV/AIDS funds can be given to groups that promote and provide practices like abortion (and sex trafficking) which are contrary to the beliefs of Muslims and Christians throughout the world. Given the many religious tensions, particularly between the U. S. and various Muslim communities, it makes no sense to provoke disagreement by offending basic moral sensibilities.

African countries are not unaware of the AIDS epidemic. But they need real solutions. Consider, for example, the experience of a chaplain of an all-boys school in Nairobi. The school serves 600 families. About two years ago, this chaplain met with all 600 families to discuss the epidemic and how to protect the children from it. Meeting with them in groups of a hundred, he had the opportunity to listen to many parents. Out of the 600 families, only one wanted their children taught that condoms protect against HIV/AIDS. The other 599 supported teaching their children abstinence because they know that it provides not only protection against disease, but also the basis for building a healthy adult life. Unfortunately, the language of HR 1298 would not protect these communities from being forced to accept condom promotion in order to get funding for abstinence programs.

In Mozambique, the Community of Sant’Egidio (an association of lay Christians) started the HIV/AIDS treatment program “Drug Resource Enhancement against AIDS in Mozambique” (DREAM). Since 1976, the group has had a constant presence in Mozambique and even helped to broker the country’s 1992 peace agreement. DREAM was launched in response to the growing AIDS crisis: condom programs were not enough to prevent the spread of the disease and did not address the issues of treatment. DREAM focuses on providing antiretroviral drugs and teaching abstinence. Given its longstanding presence in Mozambique, the Community has developed a strong local character and has won grassroots support. Offering medical and scientific expertise, DREAM builds on respect for existing cultural values which happen to be fairly conservative. Most importantly, the program is both effective and accepted by the community for which it has been created.

President Bush originally introduced a substantial initiative in the form of $15 billion in aid to help less developed countries halt the AIDS epidemic. However, the legislation that would become the vehicle for this aid (H.R. 1298) has been so warped that it does not resemble the aid it was intended to be. Funding organizations which hold values diametrically opposed to those of the communities they propose to serve will do little to stop the spread of the disease, especially if the programs are less-effective and countercultural, and it will not help to build a rapport between the U.S. and less-developed countries. But many of our elected representatives don’t seem concerned about shaping the funding with this in mind.

Actions speak louder than words — look at the vote on that sex-trafficking amendment. Nearly half the committee representatives indirectly support sex trafficking. In the same vein, many other representatives are supporting a bill that represents failed solutions and violates cultural respect. If they will support and encourage these violations of human dignity, they won’t be concerned with effective treatment for these same people.

Pia de Solenni is a fellow at the Center for Human Life and Bioethics of the Family Research Council.



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