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Bush’s War on the Condom

The United Nations‘ latest report on AIDS, issued last week, underscores how the Bush administration’s war on the condom has blocked HIV-prevention efforts around the world. A key finding: Nearly half of all new cases of HIV infection are women. But in May, at the U.N.‘s Special Session on Children, Bush formed an unholy alliance with Iraq and Iran -- you remember, two-thirds of the ”axis of evil“ -- to successfully eliminate from the official declaration any references to the right of the world’s children to ”reproductive health services and education,“ including condoms for HIV prevention.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where teenage girls are treated as chattel and forced into sexual submission to older men -- either by economic necessity or cultural tradition -- the U.N. report notes that about 2 million of about 4.2 million new HIV infections are among females. Yet Bush threatened countries with trade and aid reprisals if they didn‘t toe the no-condoms, abstinence-only, anti-abortion line in the vote to weaken the U.N.’s commitment to providing life-saving information to those young women.

But that‘s only the tip of the iceberg. Countries like Cambodia have complained in public that U.S. policies preventing American foreign-aid dollars from being used to purchase, distribute and educate about condoms have crippled their HIV-prevention programs.

And, here at home, Bush -- under the direction of political commissar Karl Rove -- has been systematically placing HIV-prevention efforts into the hands of the Christian right -- which a is pushing the censorious line that abstinence before heterosexual marriage is the only permissible form of HIV-prevention education -- and putting condom opponents in charge of AIDS education.

For example, Rove engineered the appointment of Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn as co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS (PACHA). A former congressman and Baptist deacon, condom critic Coburn -- a board member of the far-right Family Research Council -- was considered the AIDS community‘s Enemy Number One in his years in the House. He earned this dishonor because this notorious homophobe, after having called safer sex a ”lie,“ tried to have the head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) fired for advocating condom use to prevent AIDS; wrote unsuccessful legislation to replace anonymous HIV testing with mandatory reporting of the names of the HIV-infected (which AIDS educators say drives people away from being tested for the virus and forces the problem underground); and spurred intimidating investigations of nonprofit AIDS agencies.

For the position of PACHA’s executive director, Rove picked Patricia Funderburk Ware, a former actress who has made a career out of promoting abstinence until marriage as the only acceptable guideline for sexual conduct. As the education head of Americans for a Sound AIDS Policy, a group funded by the Christian right, Ware not only lobbied against any efforts that promoted education and protection over abstinence but also against including HIV and AIDS in the Americans With Disabilities Act and its protections against discrimination. Moreover, Bush‘s appointees to the advisory council included no scientists and not a single person with HIV, while at the same time he stacked it with campaign contributors and Christian-right condom opponents -- including Joe McIlhaney Jr., director of the Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which provides condom-debunking information to abstinence educators across the country. McIlhaney, who was Bush’s AIDS-prevention guru when Dubya was governor.

At the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Rove recruited conservative Claude Allen, a former top aide to Jesse Helms, to keep an eye on Secretary Tommy Thompson (who has an exaggerated reputation as a ”moderate“). As Secretary of Health and Human Resources for right-wing Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, Allen bent public-health priorities to the religious right‘s agenda and led a state-sponsored anti-safe-sex crusade he cooked up with the abstinence-only Institute for Youth Development, whose mission is to teach children to fear rather than understand sex. Allen says of condom use: ”It’s like telling your child, ‘Don’t use the car,‘ but then leaving the keys in the Lamborghini and saying, ’But if you do, buckle up.‘“ As deputy health secretary, Allen has been placed in charge of a censorious audit of AIDS groups designed to crack down on science-based safe-sex education.

Not only has Allen made explicit sex ed aimed at gay men his favorite target (despite soaring infection rates among under-25 gay males), but when Thompson was criticized by vociferous protests against Bush’s AIDS betrayals during the secretary‘s speech at the international AIDS conference in Barcelona earlier this year, influential Indiana Representative Mark Souder -- an evangelical Christian who says all gay sex is ”immoral,“ and who chairs the House’s oversight subcommittee on HHS -- sparked a witch-hunt against a dozen respected AIDS service organizations (including San Francisco‘s Stop AIDS Project) because some of their members participated in the demonstration. Now being conducted by Allen, the HHS witch-hunting audit is designed to intimidate all of the 3,500 local AIDS service groups, which are dependent on federal funding for their existence, into staying silent on Bush’s disastrous AIDS policies.

In October, a dozen congressmen led by L.A.‘s Henry Waxman denounced the Bush administration’s removal of medical information on condoms and sex from government Web sites, including those of the CDC and HHS. And Human Rights Watch recently issued a damning report on how Bush‘s pushing of abstinence-only has undermined prevention education about AIDS and other STDs (check it out at www.hrw.orgpress200209us0918.htm).

While flat-lining domestic AIDS funding for the Ryan White Care Act and the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (which provides anti-AIDS drugs to the poor) -- both of which are now facing crisis shortfalls in their budgets -- Bush has added tens of millions to his 2003 budget for abstinence-only education, now up to $135 million. Rove’s evil genius: The money is used as political patronage for religious-sponsored abstinence programs, particularly in the black and Latino communities -- where new AIDS infections are soaring, and where churches are being enrolled to support Bush‘s 2004 re-election. (A coalition of 50 organizations -- including the American Jewish Congress Commission for Women’s Equality, chapters of Planned Parenthood, a United Church of Christ ministry, the Unitarians and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League -- has initiated a campaign to have Congress stop funding abstinence-only programs. Its Web site -- www.nonewmoney.org -- gives you a simple, clickable way to e-mail your Congress members.)

So, by politicizing AIDS education and prevention both globally and domestically, the Bush administration, in its macabre dance, is helping to push the numbers of new AIDS infections upward. Future generations will judge this for what it is: stomach-turning criminal negligence.