Remember celebrated cat painter George W. Bush? He was also U.S. president for a time. And a war criminal for even longer now. (Allegedly!) But before he turned invading countries for no reason into a worldwide craze, he had at least one good idea, which was planted in the squishy loam of his skull by much smarter people.
No, it wasn’t his decision to spend $3 trillion on a ruinous war with Iraq when he could have just given it directly to Halliburton for the development of a choke-free pretzel. Granted, that would have seemed absurd at the time, but in the end, everyone would have clearly been much happier. It was his decision to launch the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an African AIDS prevention initiative that’s estimated to have saved more than 25 million lives in the two decades since its implementation.
It may be the only good and decent thing Dubya ever did, but its funding is currently being threatened because, somehow, Republicans are now even more awful than they used to be. And now, Bush is speaking out in an effort to rescue his program.
In a Wednesday opinion piece for The Washington Post, Bush pleaded with his own party—which, unfortunately for him and his legacy, Donald Trump has long since swallowed whole like a half-baked Christmas ham—to maintain funding for the program, which is about as pro-life (though not necessarily pro-fetus) as it gets.
We are on the verge of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To abandon our commitment now would forfeit two decades of unimaginable progress and raise further questions about the worth of America’s word.
The reauthorization is stalled because of questions about whether PEPFAR’s implementation under the current administration is sufficiently pro-life. But there is no program more pro-life than one which has saved more than 25 million lives. I urge Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years without delay.
In his editorial, Bush mentioned that three of his advisers, Condoleezza Rice, Josh Bolten, and Mike Gerson—the aforementioned smart(er) people—had encouraged him to implement the program. He cited Gerson’s passionate advocacy of the program, quoting him at length.
One of the quotes Bush cited, which was from Nov. 30, 2017, noted the remarkable progress Gerson, who died last November, had witnessed with respect to Africa’s AIDS crisis.
In January of 2003 — as a cresting wave of death from AIDS swept across sub-Saharan Africa — George W. Bush proposed the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest initiative to fight a single disease in history. (I was one advocate for the plan within the Bush administration.) The legislation passed rapidly, with bipartisan support. The effort — including mass treatment, prevention and compassionate care — was continued and expanded under President Barack Obama.
But even people who might ordinarily agitate for the rights of rapists to force their victims to bear their children are balking at some Republicans’ determination to scuttle the program over abortion politics.
Writing for The New York Times, Richard W. Bauer, a pro-life Catholic priest who’s spent 25 years working at AIDS clinics in Africa, argued earlier this month that pulling the plug on PEPFAR over accusations that it supports abortion would be shockingly counterproductive.
As a pro-life man of faith, I have witnessed the miracle of Lazarus over and over again. PEPFAR has meant that millions of H.I.V.-positive children and adults who were near death have been brought back to life.
And yet today, PEPFAR’s future is in peril: Some House Republicans refuse to move forward with a five-year reauthorization of the program in its current form because of evidence-free insinuations that it indirectly funds abortion. PEPFAR’s legislative authorization expires at the end of this month. Unless Congress acts urgently to renew it, the world could lose PEPFAR as we know it.
How did we get this close to the precipice for an initiative that has enjoyed enthusiastic bipartisan support for two decades? This spring, seemingly out of the blue, a small number of politicians and think tanks made this lifesaving program a target by launching disingenuous attacks based on falsehoods that have been disproved by people close to PEPFAR’s daily work and governance — including me.
So reauthorizing this program is clearly a no-brainer, which means it should be really easy for Republicans to vote for it. But their wee brains have conspired with their blackened hearts to threaten one of Bush’s few real accomplishments.
RELATED STORY: Republican opposition to abortion threatens global HIV/AIDS program that has saved 25 million lives
But how the hatin’ heck did we get here? In a must-read story I wish I could just repost in full, the Associated Press sums it up nicely:
The trouble began in the spring, when the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative Washington think tank, accused the Biden administration of using PEPFAR “to promote its domestic radical social agenda overseas.”
The group pointed to new State Department language that called for PEPFAR to partner with organizations that advocate for “institutional reforms in law and policy regarding sexual, reproductive and economic rights of women.” Conservatives argued that's code for trying to integrate abortion with HIV/AIDS prevention, a claim the administration has denied.
In language echoing the early, harsh years of the epidemic, Heritage called HIV/AIDS a “lifestyle disease” that should be suppressed by “education, moral suasion and legal sanctions.” It recommended halving U.S. funding for PEPFAR, saying poor countries should bear more of the costs.
Shortly after that, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a longtime supporter of PEPFAR who wrote the bill reauthorizing it in 2018, said he would not move forward with reauthorization this time unless it barred nongovernmental organizations that used any funding to provide or promote abortion services. The threat from the New Jersey Republican threat comes with weight: He chairs the U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee with jurisdiction over the program’s funding.
And here we thought Republicans had reached their moral nadir 20 years ago, but they continually plumb even greater depths of depravity. It’s like the “Friday the 13th” producers suddenly decided Jason Voorhees wasn’t nearly off-putting enough in the first 10 installments, so they’re replacing him with Matt Gaetz standing naked in Chris Hansen’s kitchen with a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and a Hefty bag full of discount condoms.
Then again, saving 25 million Africans hardly meshes with the so-called “America First” movement. Except when it does, that is.
As Gerson asked in 2017, when the Trump administration initially proposed gutting the program, “Are Republicans in Congress prepared to squander a legacy of GOP leadership that has won the United States considerable goodwill around the world? Among evangelical Christians, what definition of being ‘pro-life’ does not include saving millions of lives from preventable disease and death?”
And as 16-year-old Idah Musimbi, who contracted HIV at birth, told the AP, “I don’t think I would live for long if these drugs stopped coming.” Her grandfather, Pastor David Shitika, credits the ongoing lives of Idah and her mother—the pastor’s daughter—to PEPFAR.
“I want to tell the American people, God bless you,” Shitika told the AP. “I do not know why you decided to help us.”
Good questions from both Gerson and Shitika alike.
But Bush et al. aren’t likely to get much of an answer out of today’s army of chaos agents in the GOP, because the pro-life death cult is fully in charge now.
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