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Congress passes AIDS bill with pro-family elements

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress has given final approval to President Bush’s global AIDS initiative, incorporating some measures important to pro-family groups in the process.

The House of Representatives adopted the legislation in a voice vote May 21, five days after the Senate also approved it. President Bush is expected to sign the bill as early as May 27.

The measure that will go to the president authorizes $15 billion in United States aid during the next five years to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in countries devastated by the disease in Africa and the Caribbean.

At the urging of pro-family and religious conservative organizations, Congress included a requirement that at least one-third of the funding go for abstinence-based programs and a conscience clause protecting faith-based groups from being required to distribute condoms in order to receive aid.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the abstinence requirement and conscience clause are “very hopeful signs that this Congress means business about backing programs that work and don’t violate pro-family and religious sensitivities. This is a grievous problem that is being faced in Africa, and I think it speaks well of our country that we are willing to try to help.”

Nearly 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa — including three million people under the age of 15 — are HIV positive or have AIDS, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations’ joint program that fights to prevent the disease. Worldwide, there are 42 million people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS, according to UNAIDS.

Last year, 3.5 million new cases were reported and 2.4 million people died of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, UNAIDS reported.

Bush announced the AIDS initiative during his January State of the Union speech. The House initially approved the bill, sponsored by Reps. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., and Tom Lantos, D.-Calif., with the abstinence and conscience clause amendments added in early May before sending it to the Senate. The Senate-approved version included an amendment encouraging debt relief for countries most affected by AIDS, thereby making a final House vote necessary.

In his floor speech before final passage, Hyde said, “America does not have to take on the HIV/AIDS crisis alone. But as is often the case, American leadership, political or financial, is necessary if our friends around the world are to bear their fair share of the burden. That is what the president’s proposal does — it sets a pattern of American leadership that others, we believe, will follow.”

Congress still has to appropriate funds for the initiative.

Land and other Christian and conservative leaders called for the inclusion of the abstinence and conscience measures as part of guidelines they proposed in a February letter to Bush. They cited Uganda as an example of a country that has reduced HIV infection by stressing abstinence.

“Uganda’s successful ‘ABC’ prevention approach prioritizes abstinence, being faithful to a monogamous partner and only then, condoms,” the letter said. “Ugandans have overwhelmingly responded to this campaign with a dramatic delay in the onset of sexual debut by teens, a reduction in the number of sexual partners and, as a result, an even more dramatic decline in HIV incidence.”

Meanwhile, African countries that have promoted only condoms, such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Botswana, also tend to have the highest rates of HIV infection, the letter said.