Abstinence Absolutists: Report Says Religious Pressure Hurts Overseas AIDS Prevention

The first comprehensive evaluation of President George W. Bush's global HIV/AIDS effort was released late last month. The report, which is a congressionally mandated review of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), was conducted by teams of independent medical professionals on behalf of the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. The report said the effort was a "promising start," but was very critical of the Administration's focus on abstinence-until-marriage programs.

With PEPFAR, the president pledged $15 billion over five years to help struggling countries prevent and manage the spread of HIV/AIDS. With the pledge, however, came severe limits on how prevention funds could be spent. Thirty-three percent of the money was immediately earmarked for abstinence-only education, while the rest was allocated for more comprehensive educational programs that include condom distribution and programs limiting transmission from mother to child or via drug use.

The report said that diverting significant portions of funding to abstinence-only prevention programs "has greatly limited" countries' ability to design prevention programs specific to their people's needs. It is also severely hampering the Bush administration's goal of preventing 7 million HIV/AIDS cases in 15 target countries by 2010 (4 million people became infected last year alone).

PEPFAR also carved out a niche for "faith-based" organizations to provide HIV/AIDS prevention programs. According to The Roundtable on Religion and Social Policy, "the law exempted participating faith-based programs with strong religious or moral objections from promoting or providing condoms.... The report cited 'routine and consistent' examples" of people seeking condoms from these organizations being sent elsewhere, if there was anywhere else to go.

The religious influence behind government-funded abstinence-only education is clear. The conservative religious organizations that promote these policies and the lawmakers who enact them are putting dogma ahead of common sense. They are blinded by the religious belief that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and this theological perspective is driving our public policy.

Although religious conservatives righteously claim that abstinence-until-marriage and marital fidelity are the only ways to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, faith and morality alone cannot stop this fatal epidemic. It's simply not our reality.

A bipartisan bill is currently pending in Congress to repeal PEPFAR's funding quota for abstinence-only programs. If Americans believe in "democracy, not theocracy," this policy must go.