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WASHINGTON, D.C | February 26, 2008 . - Today, 26 faith based organizations sent a letter to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA) calling for members to support Chairman Berman's legislation reauthorizing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Berman bill, due for markup on Wednesday,supports comprehensive prevention programs and drops the requirement that 33% of our HIV prevention funding must go to abstinence-until-marriage programs. These 26 faith based organizations see the Berman bill "as a critical step toward ending the HIV and AIDS epidemic and fulfilling our commitment to public health and universal human rights."
***Text of Letter***
Informed by religious teachings and values, our organizations believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, both men and women. We also share a deep concern about the current and future implications of the global AIDS epidemic for individuals, families, communities, and nations. We are united in our support for U.S. funding working toward reaching the goals of universal access to prevention, treatment, and care, based in all cases on evidence-based approaches to saving human lives, whether by preventing the next new HIV infection through comprehensive approaches or ensuring that persons suffering from AIDS have effective access to both to ARVs and to the necessary nutritional and medical support to make anti-retroviral treatment effective.
Unfortunately, there are still many challenges that we must overcome to succeed in the battle against the global AIDS epidemic. Each year 2.5 million people become newly infected with HIV and there are seven new infections for each person accessing treatment. Increasingly, it is women, young people and socially marginalized groups who bear the greatest burden of this epidemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls make up 60 percent of all HIV infections and 76 percent of infections among individuals aged 15 to 24.
Further, women and girls are biologically, socially, and economically more vulnerable to HIV infection than their male peers. As a result, a comprehensive prevention strategy that addresses the risk factors unique to this population is essential if we are to see the end of this pandemic. Our faiths motivate us to support the best and most flexible approaches possible to preventing new infections.
For this reason we write with deep concern about efforts to undermine the Berman bill to reauthorize the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This draft legislation includes important changes in policy, program and funding streams based on what we have learned as a global community fighting HIV and AIDS the past five years. However, the success of the draft legislation is being threatened by opponents of effective prevention strategies who have used various strategies to promote confusion and misunderstanding about the draft bill. For example, some have characterized the bill as promoting or funding abortion. This is categorically untrue. Since 1973, United States law has prohibited any U.S. foreign assistance from being used to provide abortion services "as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions". At no time has any organization been found to be in violation of this law. Nothing in the new bill changes the existing law. No abortion services can be provided with PEPFAR funding. It is simply a non-issue.
Likewise, these same opponents have asserted that the Berman bill eliminates programs aimed at encouraging abstinence, delay of sexual debut, and fidelity as strategies for reducing the rate of sexual transmission of HIV. This is also categorically untrue. Unprotected sex is the single most important factor in the spread of HIV infections worldwide and is responsible for 80 percent of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa. The draft bill provides strong support for comprehensive approaches to prevention of sexual transmission. These include, by definition, programs resulting in measurable outcomes such as increases in abstinence, delay of sexual debut, fidelity and other behavior changes as well as increases in safer sex practices among those who are sexually active.
These "created controversies" threaten a bill based on the best available evidence of best practices in public health and medicine supported by the collective weight of research and program experience as accepted by the World Health Organization, the Institutes of Medicine, the Government Accountability Office and the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator itself. Because these mischaracterizations have grave implications for so many lives, we can not be silent. We fully support the following aspects of the draft legislation:
- Removal of all restrictions, including the abstinence-until-marriage earmark, that impede flexibility in devising evidence-based, comprehensive approaches to preventing the greatest number of new infections possible;
- Support for linkages between HIV prevention and basic family planning services to ensure the greatest level of access to information and services for women and girls;
- Support for the purchase of and access to contraceptive supplies for women receiving PMTCT services; and
- Support for strategies focusing on women, youth and highly marginalized and vulnerable populations such as men who have sex with men and sex workers.
Although we represent diverse religious and religiously-affiliated organizations, our faith traditions all share the common principles of justice, compassion, and the belief that we must not stand by as our neighbor bleeds. We therefore support the full draft of the Berman bill as a critical step toward ending the HIV and AIDS epidemic and fulfilling our commitment to public health and universal human rights. HIV and AIDS have had devastating consequences throughout the developing world -- consequences that can be prevented by empowering the most vulnerable populations with proven prevention strategies.
It is our moral duty to do nothing less.
We urge you to stand up for evidence over ideology in passing the Berman bill during markup on February 27th.
Signatories: American Jewish Committee; American Jewish World Service; The Balm In Gilead; Catholics for Choice; Central Conference of American Rabbis; Christian Church Disciples of Christ, Division of Overseas Ministries; Disciples Justice Action Network (Disciples of Christ); Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church Disciples of Christ; Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Jewish Reconstructionist Federation; Jewish Women International; Mennonite Central Committee, U.S. Washington Office; National Council of Jewish Women; Presbyterian Church, (USA), Washington Office; Quixote Center; The Rabbinical Assembly; Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries; United Church of Christ, Wider Church Ministries; United Church of Christ HIV and AIDS Network (UCAN); Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; Unitarian Universalist Global AIDS Coalition; United Methodist Church, General Board of Church & Society; Union for Reform Judaism; Women of Reform Judaism