Right threatens AIDS funding

September 9, 2023

Reauthorization of funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, an initiative credited with saving more than 25 million lives, has been abruptly bogged down by Republican legislators. They claim—falsely—that the fund indirectly supports abortion providers worldwide. Robinson Ogwang, who sits on the board of The AIDS Support Organization, a PEPFAR partner in Uganda, said “A lot of time is being wasted” as Congress debates the program’s future, sparking confusion on the ground for organizations trying to plan their own operations.


Since 2003, spearheaded by President George W. Bush, PEPFAR has spent in excess of $100 billion across more than 50 countries, distributed millions of courses of medicine to treat and prevent HIV, collected data on the virus’s spread, and forged durable partnerships with local governments and organizations.

Experts credited PEPFAR for helping to stabilize health systems in regions including sub-Saharan Africa, devastated by the spread of HIV in the 1990s, and for building global capacity for future crises. Former President Bush recently lobbied for the Biden administration’s “clean” five-year reauthorization of the HIV program, with no new policy restrictions, allowing Congress to quickly update the existing PEPFAR legislation.

The White House also rebuffed a suggestion by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (N.J.), an anti-abortion Republican who chairs a key House panel, that Biden reinstate the deadly Mexico City Policy.

“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,” the official said.


PEPFAR updated its strategic direction document to stress that the program does not support abortion: “In the context of PEPFAR, [sexual and reproductive health] services refers to four areas,” reads a recently added footnote. It lists prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV including access to condoms, education and care around sexually transmitted infections, cervical cancer screening and treatment, and prevention of gender-based violence. “PEPFAR does not fund abortions, consistent with long-standing legal restrictions on the use of foreign assistance funding related to abortion.”

Fanatical anti-abortion advocacy groups insist that PEPFAR is a nonstarter. Heritage, Family Research Council and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America have warned lawmakers that if they vote for the Biden-backed bill, they will be docked on the organizations’ “scorecards”— a key metric that many anti-abortion Republicans slavishly rely on when campaigning for reelection.

Susan van Gelder

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