Knight Ridder News
WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would triple current spending to $15 billion over five years to combat the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the developing world.
The measure passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 375-41, despite controversial provisions added by conservative Republicans to restrict anti-AIDS counseling and emphasize abstinence and monogamy as the preferred methods of prevention. The House voted 220-197 to require that one-third of the money go to "abstinence-until-marriage" programs.
President Bush, who asked for the big funding increase in his State of the Union speech in January, lauded the House for its speedy work. The "action is an important step toward providing critically needed treatment and care for millions of people suffering from AIDS, and proven prevention programs for millions more who are at risk," he said in a statement issued by the White House.
Bush called for the Senate also to act quickly; he'd like to have the legislation enacted into law before he visits Africa in June.
Despite the restrictions, the legislation "sends a message to the world that the United States will not sit idly by and allow AIDS to wreak havoc," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
More than 65 million people have been infected with the deadly disease, and more than 25 million have died. The vast majority of people with AIDS live in Africa. Millions of children have been orphaned by it.
"Not since the bubonic plague swept across the world in the last millennium, killing more than 250 million people, has our world confronted such a horrible, unspeakable curse as we are now witnessing with the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic," said Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
In a carefully crafted compromise, members agreed not to prohibit giving tax dollars to AIDS programs run by international family-planning organizations that also promote abortion. The measure specifies that the anti-AIDS money can't be spent on family-planning efforts.
The legislation backs the "ABC" method of fighting the virus: "Abstain, be faithful and use condoms." Uganda followed that approach, which helped it buck Africa's trend and dramatically decrease its rate of HIV infection in the 1980s and 1990s.
After a heated debate, the House added a provision by voice vote that includes language allowing money to go faith-based groups that object to condom use for religious or moral reasons. The legislation doesn't require that they teach condom use as a method to fight the virus. The Roman Catholic Church provides assistance to one-quarter of the people who have AIDS in the world, according to the House International Relations Committee.
"Why should we exclude them because they have moral objections against using condoms?" Hyde pleaded. "This is an effort to make the army fighting AIDS as inclusive as possible."
California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos said the specific language was unnecessary and undermined efforts to prevent AIDS from spreading by encouraging the use of condoms. "The tragic history of this disease has shown that there are no silver bullets. We must use every means at our disposal to defeat it," he said.
Other critics argued that the added provisions would undermine current programs that educate individuals about "safe-sex" options.
"Congress must not divert precious U.S. funds to programs that fail to educate people about all the ways to prevent HIV transmission," Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said. "Tying the hands of health-care providers by imposing anti-condom, abstinence-only restrictions will cause increased suffering and more deaths."
Republicans countered that "it's important that we not just send them money, but we send them values that work," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said.
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