Bush Global AIDS Gag is Harmful to Public Health, Groups Tell Appeals Court

November 14, 2006 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union and 26 public health experts, human rights and HIV/AIDS organizations are urging a federal appeals court to reject a government policy that restricts the ability of U.S. groups to end the spread of HIV/AIDS in other countries.

The policy, part of the “AIDS Leadership Act,” requires organizations that receive U.S. federal funding – regardless of their mission – to explicitly pledge to oppose commercial sex work. Two federal courts have ruled in separate cases that the policy violates the First Amendment rights of U.S. organizations, but the government is appealing those decisions.

“The federal government should stop playing politics with critical funding needed to end the global devastation caused by the AIDS pandemic,” said Claudia Flores, an attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and counsel on today’s brief. “The global AIDS gag will further stigmatize high-risk populations and put more lives at risk. This policy is completely at odds with efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and to treat its victims.”

The groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia emphasizing the damaging impact the policy would have on public health worldwide. The groups also argue that the policy violates the free speech rights of U.S. organizations by restricting use of their private funds.

Many organizations that work to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS often reach out to commercial sex workers to distribute condoms and offer education on safer-sex measures. Signing an official pledge to oppose commercial sex workers could lead to further stigmatization of this high risk population, say the groups, and would undermine prevention and treatment efforts. Those already infected will be discouraged from acknowledging their condition and seeking treatment because of a fear of being shunned or abused. Others will not seek out information or medical care or may fail to take precautions that stem the spread of HIV/AIDS for fear of stigmatization.

“Some of today’s fastest growing HIV epidemics are happening among sex workers in developing countries, yet the Bush administration policy would create an even bigger crisis,” said Paul Zeitz of the Global AIDS Alliance, one of the groups signed on to today’s brief. “As the United States increases its commitment in the global fight against AIDS, we should not push an agenda that would put more lives at risk.”

The groups say that this policy is at odds with the United States’ own HIV/AIDS policies. The premier federal agencies working to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS in the United States, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have found that isolating vulnerable groups like sex workers profoundly affects prevention efforts. Denying all funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to organizations that do not make the pledge is in direct contradiction to this long held public health practice, said the ACLU.

The ACLU’s brief was filed yesterday in USAID v. DKT International. DKT International, a U.S.-based organization, was denied federal funding when it refused to adopt the policy because it would hamper its HIV/AIDS services worldwide, including in countries with high rates of infection like Sudan, Ethiopia, India and Brazil. On May 18, 2006, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that the pledge requirement is unconstitutional. That ruling came a week after a federal judge in New York issued a similar ruling in a separate case, AOSI v. USAID. The ACLU filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both those cases as well.

In addition to Global AIDS Alliance, the organizations that signed onto the new ACLU brief are: AIDS Action, American Foundation for AIDS Research, American Humanist Organization, American Jewish World Service, Center for Health and Gender Equity, Center for Reproductive Rights, Center for Women Policy Studies, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Global Health Council, Global Justice, Guttmacher Institute, Human Rights Watch, Institute of Human Rights of Emory University, International Planned Parenthood Federation of the Western Hemisphere Region, International Women’s Health Coalition, National Council of Jewish Women, Partners in Health, Physicians for Human Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Population Action International, Population Council, Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Chair of the Harvard Medical School Department of Social Medicine.

The brief’s authors are Flores and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and Caroline Brown, Susannah Vance and Christine Magdo of Covington & Burling LLP.

For a copy of the brief, go to www.aclu.org/hiv/gen/27371lgl20061114.html

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