Bush Criticized by Both Sides for Support of AIDS Prevention Bill

By Steve Brown | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - While endorsing a $15 billion worldwide AIDS prevention bill Tuesday, President Bush was still catching heat from critics on the left and right.

Conservatives blame the president for a "missed opportunity" in ensuring that "proven" AIDS prevention programs emphasizing abstinence and monogamy are utilized. Some liberal Democrats in Congress say the bill is not expensive enough and the White House should have less control of the purse strings.

Earlier this month, the House International Affairs Committee completed its version of the legislation committing the $15 billion over five years to increase AIDS treatment and prevention across the globe.

However, "as currently framed, the bill provides a great opportunity to be a boondoggle for left-leaning groups to spend taxpayer money in ways that actually proliferate the disease," Ken Connor, Family Research Council (FRC) president, told CNSNews.com Tuesday.

Bush did address conservative concerns in touting the features of the bill. He explained that in Uganda, Africa, a prevention strategy that started in the 1980s "emphasizing abstinence and marital fidelity, as well as condoms to prevent HIV transmission," has caused AIDS rates to "drop dramatically" and cut the rates of pregnant women with AIDS "in half."

Countering that view, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) earlier this month argued that it is unwise for the U.S. to prioritize any single approach over another.

"We have to support the use of condoms as a realistic means to reduce the spread of HIV just as equally as we support the promotion of abstinence and being faithful," Lee said.

Bush said Congress should make the Ugandan approach the "model for our prevention efforts" under the legislation. Known as the "ABC approach," it urges people to Abstain, Be faithful or use Condoms if A and B are not practiced.

During a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing earlier this year, witness Edward Green - a Harvard researcher - offered testimony illustrating the successes of Uganda's ABC program. Ugandan AIDS infection rates had slid from 21 percent of the population to six percent since 1991, Green noted.

"The abstinence message for the most part took the form of urging youth to delay having sex until they were older and preferably married," Green said at the hearing. "Many of us in the AIDS and public health communities didn't believe that abstinence or delay, and faithfulness were realistic goals.

"It now seems we were wrong."

In what Sam Stratman, press officer for House International Relations Committee Chair Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), called a "major concession" by the panel's Democrats, the bill now points out the effectiveness of abstention and fidelity. However, the panel defeated an amendment that would have listed abstinence and monogamy as priorities.

During the upcoming House floor debate, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) has indicated he will introduce an FRC-backed amendment setting aside one-third of the funding strictly for abstinence and monogamy programs in preventing AIDS.

"The status quo (of prevention programs) is the marketing of condoms, and if there isn't a deliberate means for abstinence, the natural flow of the program will go to condom distribution," Pitts said.

"I think we can make this bill better. I think we have to make this bill better."

The FRC would like to see a cap placed on the amount of money going to the Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria - a public-private fund based in Switzerland and governed by the United Nations. Connor said the U.N. has a "poor track record" of funding prevention programs such as ABC.

The conservative group also wants to see conscience protections for faith-based groups engaged in AIDS treatment and prevention. Connor explained that some faith-based organizations contributing to the effort might oppose condom distribution on religious grounds.

"We want to make sure they are not penalized for doing that and that funds aren't withheld from them in that regard," Connor said.

Although the House bill would provide $1 billion to the Global Fund in FY 2004, liberal critics are calling for more. In response, the Bush administration has offered an additional $200 million, phased in over five years, but it also wants more U.S. oversight to ensure the money is applied efficiently. The House bill does address the latter concern.

During a March 5 statement on the House floor, Waters criticized the phasing in of funds as "particularly troublesome in the case of the AIDS epidemic."

"Every year, another three million people die of AIDS, another five million become infected with HIV. How many people will we have to die before we have an emergency plan, a real emergency plan that is triggered immediately?" Waters asked at the time.

She also criticized Bush for trying to "ensure that his $15 billion emergency plan for AIDS relief will be implemented almost exclusively by United States government agencies," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

That same day, March 5, District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton joined in the attack on the president.

"We are trying to unilaterally impose our approach, an approach that we have imposed in our country, but democratically, you can do that here. We are trying to impose that on the world," Norton said.

Stratman welcomed any additional amendments during the floor debate, saying it was the "appropriate place" to add such measures.

"Bring them on," Stratman said. "This is a good debate, and it would be my hope that Chairman Hyde could support some of these.

The full House is slated to vote on the measure (The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003, H.R. 1298) Thursday, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to begin debating it next week. Final votes are expected next month, according to administration officials.

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