Bush on AIDS: Competing Moral Imperatives

Craig Sterritt

Disclosures

AIDS. 2003;17(18s) 

In This Article

Flexing Ideologic Muscle

Critics of Bush's singular push for abstinence-only AIDS prevention methodologies, and of the apparent move to bring educational materials provided by the HHS in line with those approaches, point to a third, and perhaps most egregious, arm of the administration's effort to discredit accepted models and methods: harassment and intimidation.

In a letter dated 20 June 2003, a group of no fewer than 151 AIDS prevention and policy groups sent a letter to President Bush concerning domestic AIDS funding, and the 'censorship' of selected prevention models, materials, and research, and the 'harassment' of federal grant recipients "whose HIV prevention philosophies do not match the most conservative political ideologies."

The coalition's letter cited a CDC injunction ordering a San Francisco AIDS prevention group, the STOP AIDS Project, to stop conducting group education programs that "appear to encourage or promote sexual activity," at the risk of losing federal grant support. The group had been subjected to "multiple and invasive" reviews, the letter continued, despite a record of full compliance with CDC's criteria for effective community-level AIDS prevention models. This complaint followed an upsurge of audits of federally funded HIV/AIDS service providers in 2002, which critics claim was also politically motivated. Importantly in this regard, not one HHS-funded abstinence-only program has been singled out for review or audit, despite, in one instance, a federal court ruling that program money had been illegally used to promote religion.

The coalition's letter likewise expressed "extreme concern" over indications of potential censorship of scientific research at NIH. The letter charged, and multiple sources confirm, that researchers have been "discouraged, intimidated or threatened by federal agencies because of the perceived controversial subjects of their work." The New York Times reported in April 2003 that scientists had been counseled by project officers to avoid using certain key words, including 'sex worker,' 'men who sleep with men,' 'anal sex' and 'needle exchange,' when applying for NIH and CDC grants. The expose noted that while monitoring of grant titles and abstracts by politically interested parties was nothing new, it appeared that such 'political surveillance' was being taken more seriously by HHS.

In essence, critics charged, the political climate at HHS had become permissive of attempts to block both the exercise of disagreeable AIDS prevention methodologies and the research required to support their effective use and demonstrate that the methodologies are, indeed, sound.

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