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By Matthew Streib
c. 2008 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Religious anti-abortion groups are angry over proposed changes in the Bush administration’s global AIDS relief program, which has reportedly provided lifesaving medicine to 1.4 million people worldwide.
“The way the bill’s been reworked, it would steer money intended to help reduce HIV/AIDS into the coffers of family planning groups that promote abortion,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a Christian advocacy group.
Five years after its inception, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, commonly known as PEPFAR, may be the most lasting bipartisan accomplishment of the Bush presidency. Announced by Bush in 2003, the plan called for $15 billion for AIDS prevention, treatment and care, concentrating on 15 hard-hit nations in Africa and the Caribbean.
Congress approved initially approved $19 billion for the program.
But as it approaches a $50 billion renewal, Democrats in Congress want changes that would remove abstinence education quotas and an anti-prostitution clause. Conservative religious groups say Bush should veto the bill if it passes in its current form.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up the bill, despite the death on Monday (Feb. 11) of Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif.
In the 2003 legislation, one-third of all AIDS prevention funding was steered to abstinence-only education programs. In addition, groups receiving PEPFAR funding are required to sign a pledge that they oppose legalizing prostitution, a policy proponents said was intended to combat exploitation of women.
Under the new proposal, spearheaded by Lantos, both provisions are removed, and a provision that enables partnerships between U.S.-funded projects and voluntary family planning programs is added.
The proposed changes reflect reports by the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Science that said earmarking funding for abstinence-only education reduced prevention efforts aimed at high-risk groups, such as prostitutes.
The GAO said 17 of the 20 countries that received PEPFAR funds reported that the spending requirements limited their ability to respond to local prevention needs. Ten of those countries received exemptions from the requirement.
The new bill would remove the one-third quota for abstinence-only programs, but would not require a change in the groups’ current funding.
Nevertheless, conservative groups believe the programs are in danger.
The bill “leaves it up the bureaucrats to decide who gets the money, and our experience has been that they will side with the abortion groups and not with what truly helps the people,” said Concerned Women for America’s Wright.
On Friday, Bush will begin a weeklong tour in Africa, pressing for a new five-year commitment of $30 billion. Concerned Women for America, along with other conservative religious groups, such as the Family Research Council and the Population Research Institute, are encouraging Bush to veto the bill in its current form.
“It would be better if President Bush had never proposed PEPFAR, than to have $50 billion hijacked by abortion-promoting, chastity-mocking, anti-people groups,” said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute.
Religious groups that support abortion rights, such as Catholics for Choice, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, believe the bill is a step in the right direction.
“It is immoral and ultimately anti-life and anti-family to play politics with HIV/AIDS prevention programs for the world’s poorest countries, yet organizations that claim to be religious and pro-family … are shamelessly doing just that,” said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the coalition.
“Denying people accurate, complete information that can save their lives and keep their families healthy and intact is cruel. Doing it for partisan political purposes is unconscionable.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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