Abstaining from Greed and Dogma: The AIDS Policy We Should Call for in 2007
Posted on: Friday, December 1, 2006
December 1, 2006—World AIDS Day
A whole generation into the AIDS pandemic, we now have significant (though still insufficient) knowledge of how to combat the disease. But while the world's collective understanding is gradually advancing, US AIDS policy remains mired in a right-wing economic and social vision that is curtailing progress and costing lives.
In fact, the politics that drive US AIDS policy—and sexual and reproductive health policy in general—have swung so far to the right that many in the US are no longer outraged by the truly outrageous. Something that would have once sounded utterly insane—like requiring health clinics to sign a loyalty oath condemning prostitution—today passes for business as usual.
But as public debate shifts to the right, we should refuse to drift with it. We need to hold our ground and continue to insist on policies that reflect our convictions. Last month's election of a Democratic Congress offers some hope, but only if we succeed in shifting public debate onto more reasonable ground. One place to begin is to help people recognize the ways that AIDS policy is fueled by financial greed, religious dogma, and hostility towards women's rights. Then we can begin to address the gap between what AIDS policy is and what it should be.
What the policy is: After another three million AIDS deaths this year, the Bush Administration is still prioritizing pharmaceutical industry profits over ensuring people's access to medicine. Patents that allow drug companies based in the US and Europe to control the manufacture and sale of AIDS medicines prevent countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America from providing people with cheaper, generic AIDS drugs (even though 95% of AIDS patients are in those countries). Meanwhile, the nine largest US drug companies turned a profit of nearly $43 billion dollars last year—more than the gross national income of some of the worst AIDS-affected countries. The latest trend, embodied by Bill Clinton, is to haggle with drug companies for reduced prices or donations. But charity is not what the countries of the Global South are asking for.
What the policy should be: Reluctant corporate charity is no way to fight the worst epidemic in recorded history. Rather, like food and water, medicine should be excluded from World Trade Organization patent rules. Not only is this a viable demand, the US already agreed to it in trade talks held in Doha in 2001. We need to push the Administration to make good on that promise. That means renegotiating recent trade deals, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, that skirt commitments made in Doha and prevent governments from providing generic drugs to people living with AIDS.
What the policy is: Today, a full one-third of international US AIDS prevention funding is mandated for programs that promote either abstinence or fidelity as prevention strategies (condoms are decried as a "last resort"). This is ludicrous. There is no evidence that moralizing about abstinence reduces the spread of HIV. On the contrary, in Uganda, it took only two years for HIV rates to double after US missionaries-turned-policymakers effectively shifted the emphasis of the country's AIDS prevention programs from condom use to abstinence.
Yet, Bush continues to favor right-wing Christian organizations that preach abstinence in disbursing federal AIDS funding. He has stacked his Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS with religious fundamentalists and incompetent ideologues: this year's outstanding appointment was of Herbert Lusk, a vocally anti-gay pastor with no HIV-related experience. And just last month, Bush picked Eric Keroack—who opposes birth control—to head the family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Keroack believes that publicly funded sexual education should consist almost entirely of abstinence promotion.
What the policy should be: Remember when public health policy was based on public health? It's not too late. Rather than a fundamentalist fantasy of stamping out sex, AIDS prevention strategies should be grounded in what we know works: education and access to condoms within a framework that promotes women's and girls' rights to negotiate sex and make the best choices for their well-being.
CONTEMPT FOR WOMEN'S RIGHTS
Current US AIDS policy gives drug companies control over treatment options and allows religious fundamentalists to dominate prevention strategies. This union of greed and dogma has produced an AIDS policy that undermines women's human rights at a time when more women than ever before are being infected with HIV.
The drug industry's hostility towards generics is disproportionately harmful to women: as the majority of the world's poor and those whose health is often most neglected within families and communities, women have the least access to costly AIDS medicines. Women are also endangered by the abstinence-and-fidelity mantra of the religious right because it ignores the fact that many women lack the power to refuse sex—especially from their husbands. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 65 percent of this year's new HIV infections occurred, being married actually increases a woman's chance of contracting the virus. And the fundamentalist attack on abortion rights—which now permeates US international health policy—continues to fuel the spread of AIDS. The "global gag rule" has pulled US funding from any health organization that provides information about abortion. As a result, clinics that once offered a range of critical health services—including AIDS treatment and prevention programs for women in some of the poorest countries—have been forced to close.
Everything we know about combating the AIDS pandemic points to the need for a synthesis of prevention and treatment strategies within a human rights framework. And it's not Bono's nor Oprah's job to develop and enact those strategies. Safeguarding public health and upholding human rights are the responsibility of government. To realize those goals, federal AIDS programs should rely on generic AIDS medicines—which, at a fraction of the cost of patented brands, are the key to ensuring universal access to treatment. The global gag rule and Bush's anti-prostitution oath should be repealed. And US policy should be brought into compliance with the plan of action developed by public health and women's rights advocates at the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development.
You don't need to have memorized the latest UNAIDS report to know that corporate greed and religious dogma are no substitute for a human rights-based international AIDS policy. That should be our message to the new and improved Congress this World AIDS Day.
A version of this article was previously published by Foreign Policy in Focus.
Archives"Press Room" Home November 2014 October 2014 September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008 November 2008 October 2008 September 2008 August 2008 July 2008 June 2008 May 2008 April 2008 March 2008 February 2008 January 2008 December 2007 November 2007 October 2007 September 2007 August 2007 June 2007 May 2007 April 2007 March 2007 February 2007 January 2007 December 2006 November 2006 October 2006 September 2006 July 2006 June 2006 April 2006 March 2006 January 2006 December 2005 November 2005 September 2005 August 2005 July 2005 April 2005 March 2005 November 2004 October 2004 April 2004 March 2004 January 2004 December 2003 October 2003 September 2003 June 2003 April 2003 January 2003 September 2002 June 2002 January 2002 November 2001 October 2001 September 2001 August 2001 January 2001
MADRE & Our Partners Make News
Iraqi government 'likely complicit' in persecution of LGBT community (The Guardian, November 19, 2014)
LGBT Iraqis face 'imminent risk of death' under Islamic State (Washington Blade, November 19, 2014)
Iraq: "When Coming Out is a Death Sentence" (San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, November 19, 2014)
The World's Obsession With Schoolgirls As Victims, And Why It's Putting Them In Danger (Think Progress, November 9, 2014)
Forbidden Talk - Prostitution in the Middle East (Levant TV, October 7, 2014)