Anti-abortion advocates in the U.S. are threatening to kill one of the most successful public health programs in history over unsubstantiated facts, unwavering opposition to a woman’s right to choose, and blatant anti-LGBTQ+ bias.
Conservative rganizations, including the Heritage Foundation and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, are threatening U.S. lawmakers with the withdrawal of their support if they grant a routine reauthorization to the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the hugely successful HIV prevention initiative in Africa.
The far-right Family Research Council describes the 20-year-old program as “a massive slush fund for abortion and LGBT advocacy.”
PEPFAR, initiated by President George W. Bush, is estimated to have saved over 25 million lives.
While the Biden administration maintains that the program — reauthorized every five years under Democratic and Republican presidents alike — does not fund abortions, those assertions aren’t enough for critics who are convinced that money from the initiative is flowing to abortion providers.
PEPFAR grantees are “promoting and helping to support abortions abroad,” Ryan Walker, the head of Heritage Action, told Christianity Today. “A five-year reauthorization to us is beyond the pale.”
The program’s $6 billion annual budget is dedicated to buying antiretroviral drugs and medical supplies, and paying for drug delivery and prevention programs, including funding for both condoms and abstinence education.
According to Doug Fountain, executive director of Christian Connections for International Health, assertions PEPFAR is funding anything other than HIV prevention are based on unsubstantiated “rumors” among people who are far removed from the funding’s beneficiaries.
“The way we look at it is, which is the more pro-life position: supporting a proven program that saves lives, or impeding it out of unsubstantiated fear?” Walker asked. “We actually can see a situation where HIV/AIDS will come under global control in the next decade or so. But we need to keep our eye on the ball and not stop progress based on rumors.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), now in his 22nd term representing central New Jersey, is leading the charge against what was, until now, a routine and bipartisan five-year reauthorization.
The 70-year-old congressman has fallen in line with so-called pro-life organizations advocating for a one-year authorization, denying the program the long lead times required to properly implement it, and leaving PEPFAR’s fate to the whims of politics.
Smith now claims his previous support for the program was a response to an “emergency,” and a necessary if temporary “tourniquet” for a “horrific problem.”
PEPFAR was already subjected to prohibitions on abortion access through longstanding restrictions like the Helms and Siljander Amendments. However, in 2018, the administration of President Donald Trump included the program in the Mexico City Policy, at Smith’s insistence. The Mexico City Policy explicitly prohibits U.S.-funded organizations from using money from any source to perform or advocate for abortions overseas.
The Biden administration stripped that provision from the amendment reauthorizing PEPFAR. Smith has staked any new funding on reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy.
Smith also pointed to a lunch meeting with the head of PEPFAR, John Nkengasong, to explain his new-found opposition.
Smith claims Nkengasong told him he works at “10,000 feet” and didn’t know what local organizations were doing on the ground. “If you tell me face-to-face over lunch that you have no idea what they’re doing at the local level, I have a problem with that,” the congressman told Christianity Today.
PEPFAR gives “a pot of money that empowers the abortion lobby in each and every one of these countries,” Smith claimed, without evidence.
For his part, Nkengasong maintains “PEPFAR has never, will not ever, use that platform in supporting abortion.”
PEPFAR’s authorization expires on September 30.