By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Lethal new regulations from President Bush’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, quietly issued with no fanfare last week, complete the right-wing Republicans’ goal of gutting HIV-prevention education in the United States. In place of effective, disease-preventing safe-sex education, little will soon remain except failed programs that denounce condom use, while teaching abstinence as the only way to prevent the spread of AIDS. And those abstinence-only programs, researchers say, actually increasethe risk of contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Published on June 16 in the Federal Register, the censorious new CDC guidelines will be mandatory for any organization that does HIV-prevention work and also receives federal funds — whether or not any federal money is directly spent on their programs designed to fight the spread of the epidemic. (The CDC is the principal federal funder of prevention education about HIV and AIDS, and its head a Bush appointee). It’s all couched in arcane bureaucratese, but this is the Bush administration’s Big Stick — do exactly as we say, or lose your federal funding. And nearly all of the some 3,800 AIDS service organizations (ASOs) that do the bulk of HIV-prevention education receive at least part of their budget from federal dollars. Without that money, they’d have to slash programs or even close their doors.
These new regs require the censoring of any “content” — including “pamphlets, brochures, fliers, curricula,” “audiovisual materials” and “pictorials (for example, posters and similar educational materials using photographs, slides, drawings or paintings),” as well as “advertising” and Web-based info. They require all such “content” to eliminate anything even vaguely “sexually suggestive” or “obscene” — like teaching how to use a condom correctly by putting it on a dildo, or even a cucumber. And they demand that all such materials include information on the “lack of effectiveness of condom use” in preventing the spread of HIV and other STDs — in other words, the Bush administration wants AIDS fighters to tell people: Condoms don’t work. This demented exigency flies in the face of every competent medical body’s judgment that, in the absence of an HIV-preventing vaccine, the condom is the single most effective tool available to protect someone from getting or spreading the AIDS virus.
Moreover, the CDC will now take the decisions on which AIDS-fighting educational materials actually work away from those on the frontlines of the combat against the epidemic, and hand them over to political appointees.
This is done by requiring that Policy Review Panels, which each group engaged in HIV prevention must have, can no longer be appointed by that group but must instead be named by state and local health departments. And those panels must then take a vote on every single flier or brochure or other “content” before it is issued.
This means that, under the new regs, political appointees will have a veto and be able to ban anything in those educational materials they deem “obscene” or lacking in anti-condom propaganda. With Republicans controlling a majority of statehouses, and having handed over control of the health departments to folks deemed acceptable to the Christian right and cultural conservatives in many Southern and Midwestern states — and the rest of public-health departments notoriously subservient to political pressure from the state and local legislatures that control their appropriations — anti-condom junk science that plays politics with people’s lives will rule the day.
Under the new regs, it will be impossible even to track the spread of unsafe sexual practices — because the CDC’s politically inspired censorship includes “questionnaires and survey materials” and thus would forbid asking people if they engage in specific sexual acts without protection against HIV. For that too would be “obscene.” (Questions about gay kids have already disappeared from the CDC’s national Youth Risk Survey after Christian-right pressure).
So what will be left? Why, the abstinence-only ed programs dear to Bush’s heart and to the Christian right. A third of all federal HIV-education money — some $270 million more in Bush’s latest budget — now goes to abstinence-only programs, almost universally to Christian groups as part of Bush’s “faith-based initiatives” (no Jewish or Muslim groups receive any funds). This is a brilliant maneuver — Bush has turned money earmarked for fighting AIDS into political pork for his Christer base. Much of this money goes to anti-abortion groups masquerading as “women’s health” or “crisis-pregnancy” centers. Others receiving such funds engage in religious propaganda — a federal judge found that Louisiana’s federally funded Governor’s Program on Abstinence illegally handed out Bibles, staged anti-abortion prayer rallies outside women’s clinics, and had students perform Bible-based skits.
Yet Bush’s Health and Human Services Department refused demands to audit the Louisiana program, while at the same time conducting repeated harassing audits of effective AIDS-fighting groups that have vigorously protested Bush policies on AIDS, like New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis and San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project. (The latter lost its federal funding earlier this year for sex-ed thought crimes similar to those banned in the new CDC regs — a pre-emptive warning to all other ASOs to toe the Bush-Christer line — and subsequently got a $100 contribution from former Bush AIDS czar Scott Evertz, ousted by Bush’s theocrats, to help continue what he called Stop AIDS’s “good work”).