|Misguided Faith on AIDS|
The New York Times, October 15, 2003
In August, the United States Agency for International Development abruptly canceled bids for a program to market condoms to gay men and others in Brazil. When the decision was criticized publicly, the agency reinstated most of the program. This was the right choice. Preventing the spread of AIDS means working with the groups most at risk.
Misguided Faith on AIDS
But the cancellation was just a recent example of the Bush administration's efforts to transform American initiatives abroad related to sex: AIDS prevention, family planning and sex education. Decisions about these programs—which can mean life or death to the people who use them—are increasingly not based on what saves lives, but on what appeals to conservatives at home.
Conservatives in Congress monitor the Web sites of the agency and its contractors for references to sex workers, gay men or drug users, and have forced the agency to discourage these projects. The right sees working with such groups as an endorsement of abhorrent behavior. But these high-risk groups are the most likely to contract and spread AIDS. To ignore them is to fuel the epidemic.
Condoms are also under attack. Bush administration officials have tried to remove international endorsements of condom use. President Bush's decision to stop the funds for any overseas family-planning group that mentions abortion has also effectively stopped condom provision to 16 countries and reduced it to 13 others, including some with the world's highest rates of AIDS infection.
Congress's appropriation for the president's AIDS initiative stipulates that a third of the money for AIDS prevention go to promote abstinence until marriage, a requirement that will strip needed funds from more effective programs. The Agency for International Development is increasingly financing groups promoting abstinence. Earlier this year, for example, the agency denied funds to a highly regarded AIDS prevention program in Africa to give the money to a consortium of evangelical groups whose proposal was considered deficient on the merits, but whose leader has links to an influential conservative in Congress.
While every good AIDS prevention program includes messages about postponing sex or reducing the number of sexual partners, the blanket advocacy of abstinence until marriage is a proven failure at protecting people from disease. The message has no meaning for gay men or for women who are forced by poverty into prostitution. In much of Africa, teenage girls—many of them AIDS orphans themselves—are coerced into sex by older, wealthier men. Knowing how to negotiate condom use could save their lives. The right's answer to AIDS is the sexual equivalent of "just say no," and is no more effective. It should not become the foundation of Washington's efforts to fight AIDS abroad.