The future of the highly successful U.S. global AIDS program is uncertain. The following article was published in the September-October 2023 issue of NewsNotes.
The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is up for renewal by Congress by the end of the fiscal year, September 30. The bipartisan legislation, first introduced by President George W. Bush, has uneventfully been renewed three times before. In its twenty-year history, the program has seen some of the greatest foreign aid accomplishments, with an estimated 25 million lives saved, 5.5 million babies born HIV-free to HIV-positive mothers, and hundreds of thousands of orphans cared for.
PEPFAR is the “most amazing thing in the history of HIV,” says Dr. Sharon Lewin, president of the International AIDS Society. Against this backdrop, one might think renewal of PEPFAR would be assured. Unfortunately, it appears that PEPFAR may become the latest U.S. culture war victim.
Early warning shots came from the Heritage Foundation in their May 1 report, “Reassessing America’s $30 Billion Global AIDS Relief Program.” The report was written by Tim Meisburger, a former Trump appointee who has denied the validity of the 2020 election.
The report observes that “except in cases of rape or maternal transmission, HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and in developing countries is primarily a lifestyle disease (like those caused by tobacco)” and as such, it should “not enjoy greater priority than deadlier and more unavoidable diseases.” In the view of the author, the fight against HIV/AIDS has been co-opted by the “Left” and the Biden administration, making resources available for “sexual and reproductive rights” which in turn implies abortion.
The head of PEPFAR, Ambassador-at-Large John Nkengasong, has denied the allegations, saying “PEPFAR has never, will not ever, use that platform in supporting abortion.” Funding or promoting abortion through PEPFAR is prohibited by U.S. law. Abortion is also illegal or highly restricted in most countries with PEPFAR-funded programs, almost all of which are in Africa.
The concluding thrust of the Heritage Foundation report, however, focuses on the fact that “almost all political contributions from employees of PEPFAR agencies and assistance providers have gone to Democratic candidates and causes,” a claim delved into with detailed breakdowns of campaign contributions from employees and accompanying charts.
On the same day the report was published, 31 pro-life groups, including the Heritage Foundation, joined a letter requesting an AIDS relief program that follows a “Mexico City policy,” a Reagan-era policy that prevents any NGO that provides abortion counselling from receiving U.S. funding. The rule would eliminate at least three major NGOs currently receiving PEPFAR funding.
As a White House source told the National Catholic Register, “the Mexico City Policy significantly inhibits our ability to confront health challenges, not only HIV/AIDS, but also tuberculosis and malaria, and also to support programs that prevent and respond to gender-based violence when it comes to women’s health.”
In Congress, Representative Chris Smith, formerly a leading champion of PEPFAR, wrote in his own letter to his colleagues: “President Biden has hijacked PEPFAR… in order to promote abortion on demand.” The Congressman named the same NGOs highlighted in the Heritage Foundation report, and further alleged that funds have been illegally used to promote abortion.
None of the letters have provided any evidence or credible allegations that PEPFAR funding has gone towards abortion. Instead, Max Primorac of the Heritage Foundation is forthright with his reasoning. “They can say, ‘we don’t use PEPFAR money to support abortion,’ but then they have their private money that goes ahead and does it,” Primorac said. The fungibility argument should be a cause for concern for all NGOs, particularly religious organizations, whose charitable work could be barred from receiving federal funding by extreme secular voices in future governments.
Another letter, dated June 6, was sent to Congress under the subject “PEPFAR and Africa’s Vales[sic]”, purportedly from 149 African leaders writing about values, “to express our concerns and suspicions that this funding is supporting so-called family planning and reproductive health principles and practices, including abortion, that violate our core beliefs.” The letter, hosted on the Heritage Foundation website, includes the signatures of six Kenyan bishops. The Kenyan Bishops Conference released a statement signed June 30, confirming that the conference had no knowledge of the letter, nor had the bishops who were supposedly signatories.
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns sent a letter to Congress asking for renewal of an unaltered PEPFAR, signed by 44 faith organizations, many of them Catholic.
An unlikely ally, former Senator Rick Santorum wrote in defense of PEPFAR in a NewsMax op-ed: “A five-year, clean extension that carries us into the next administration may be the best outcome for everyone concerned. Especially for the millions of people living with—not dying from—AIDS, and who thank Americans for keeping them alive daily.”
Faith in action:
Tell Congress to renew funding for PEPFAR at https://mogc.info/PEPFAR
Photo from the cover of the Compendium of Promising Practices of African Faith Community Interventions Against Paediatric and Adolescent HIV; 2023.