Dispatches > The Buzz

The ABCs of AIDS

A new AIDS bill doesn't guarantee a focus on what works: abstinence

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

President Bush touted his $15 billion AIDS initiative in an East Room ceremony last week while conservative groups turned the screws on the House of Representatives not to pass a bill they say will fund condom-peddling programs.

Groups such as the Family Research Council oppose HR 1298 because it doesn't give the emphasis to abstinence programs that the "ABC model" does. Abstinence, Being faithful to one partner, and Condom use as a last resort-in that hierarchical order-was implemented successfully in Uganda, and the administration has supported it. But support is not enough, says FRC President Ken Connor.

The current legislation mentions the ABC model-but neither requires nor prevents its implementation. The airy wording may not be a problem now, but conservatives worry about what will happen if a left-leaning president or Congress comes to power. "The problem is that administrations don't remain indefinitely and legislation does," said Mr. Connor, adding that he lacks confidence that all officials "in this administration will do the right things."

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The House International Relations Committee approved the bill on April 2 but rejected two amendments that would give more funding to abstinence programs and inject a conscience clause protecting faith-based groups from being forced to distribute condoms. "This bill, without protections involved, is ripe for abuse and programs that add to the problem rather than solve the problem," said Mr. Connor. A bill with those amendments, however, would have a hard time passing in the Senate.

President Bush is pushing for swift passage of the legislation, saying he wants to sign it before Memorial Day. Will the enacted bill save 7 million from infection in the next decade with the AIDS virus, HIV, as the administration claims? Follow the money-25 percent of USAID's funding currently goes to faith-based groups, and that's likely to increase for their AIDS programs.

And it's churches and their leaders who are most skeptical of the untrammeled condom message. Allowing faith-based groups to have easy access to funding may be nothing less than pragmatic if the government wants effectiveness: Africans have deep respect for their church leaders. "You cannot leave out church groups if you want to win hearts," said Peter Okaalet of Map International in Eastern and Southern Africa.

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