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Rep. Barbara Lee says PEPFAR is “in peril” amid conservative attacks and looming government shutdown

Rep. Barbara Lee says PEPFAR is “in peril” amid conservative attacks and looming government shutdown
Group of young multiracial woman with red ribbons in hands are struggling against HIV/AIDS. Photo: Shutterstock

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) says that the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is “in peril.” The 20-year-old African HIV prevention program is estimated to have saved over 25 million lives.

Amid attacks from conservative groups and with a government shutdown looming this weekend, Congress is unlikely to reauthorize the widely hailed program, which was passed in 2003 by former President George W. Bush. Conservatives will allow PEPFAR to lapse on October 1.

Lee voiced her frustration during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference earlier last week, the Washington Blade reported.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” she said. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

According to the U.S. Department of State, the program has received bipartisan support over the past two decades. But recently, conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, have been threatening Republican lawmakers with the withdrawal of their support if they vote for PEPFAR’s routine reauthorization. While U.S. law prohibits foreign aid money from being used to provide abortions, conservatives claim, without evidence, that in its current form PEPFAR funds organizations that promote and provide abortions.

The far-right Family Research Council has described PEPFAR as “a massive slush fund for abortion and LGBT advocacy.” A campaign launched by the organization urges supporters to tell their representatives to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.”

Last December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new PEPFAR strategy that would include targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ and intersex people, women, girls, and other marginalized groups.

However, Lee insisted that PEPFAR has nothing to do with abortions.

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who participated on the panel alongside Lee, blasted the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization,” according to the Blade. Meanwhile, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said that failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof noted that “PEPFAR is one reason polls show that Africa is one of the most pro-American parts of the globe,” and that “America’s struggle to reauthorize PEPFAR amounts to a gift to” China, which is competing for influence in the region.

Lee added that if PEPFAR is not reauthorized, the U.S. would be “missing in action.”

As NPR reports, conservative groups want lawmakers to apply a Reagan-era policy that banned U.S. foreign aid from funding organizations that advocate for and provide abortions using non-U.S. funds. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced an amendment to the appropriations bill this week that would apply the so-called “Mexico City policy” to PEPFAR. According to NPR, the bill is not expected to pass in its current form.

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