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Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness.

The U.S. program to eradicate HIV is one of America’s most respected soft-power contributions to African development. Now, a posse of Republican representatives is holding up the reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) for political gain. They are trying to turn the enormous attributes of PEPFAR into dangers, all for narrow attention in the culture wars. Africa should not be held captive to wildly misplaced Republican political publicity seeking.

Soft power is a strength. The United States is engaged in a monumental competition with China and Russia for hearts and minds in Africa, as elsewhere across the globe. Washington needs the support of Africa’s 55 countries as it helps Ukraine battle Vladimir Putin and assists Israel in halting Hamas. It also requires Africa’s resources, like lithium and cobalt. But the Republicans in the House of Representatives are attacking one of the most successful examples of moral leadership advanced in this century by an American government. Abortion politics has intruded once again, threatening legitimacy and sterling good works beyond our shores, and dramatically undercutting American soft power.

Proposed and enacted during the aggressive presidency of George W. Bush, PEPFAR is likely to have saved 25 million lives, mostly in Africa, since 2003. It has cost US$100-billion over the course of 20 years and has been routinely reauthorized in a bipartisan manner every five years since it was started as an experimental innovation during the depths of the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Now, the post-Roe abortion-obsessed Republicans refuse to reauthorize PEPFAR – Mr. Bush’s only bright legacy. They falsely claim that the Biden administration is using PEPFAR to promote abortion in Africa. PEPFAR officially lapsed on Sept. 30, at the end of the fiscal year. The program is still operating using unexpired funds, but its fate is uncertain.

The Republican assertion is erroneous. Some of PEPFAR’s local health partners provide abortions, but this work is not funded by PEPFAR. But Republican abortion-baiters in the House want to attach anti-abortion language to any reauthorization bill, infuriating the Biden administration.

PEPFAR focuses on HIV/AIDS and other maladies prevalent throughout Africa. Abortion is not an illness and is not related to HIV/AIDS, but Republicans are nevertheless trying to raise the spectre of abortion to kill PEPFAR.

PEPFAR offers 65 million Africans HIV treatment and testing services, including providing life-saving antiretroviral medicines to 20 million men, women, and children in more than 50 countries, keeping them alive. Additionally, PEPFAR has long tried to help HIV/AIDS sufferers cope with tuberculosis, an old disease that makes treating HIV/AIDS much more difficult. It is a leading cause of HIV/AIDS fatalities throughout much of southern Africa.

Another worthy PEPFAR initiative may erroneously have attracted Republicans looking for a peg on which to hang their predilection for abortion-slanted political arousing. PEPFAR wants to launch a “Safe Births, Healthy Babies” program to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Until now, PEPFAR has helped 5.5 million babies be born HIV-free. Nevertheless, about 130,000 babies were newly infected by their mothers in 2022. The Safe Births program makes no mention of abortion, nor is there any evidence that PEPFAR encourages abortions.

Nations once overrun by HIV/AIDS like Botswana have reached the previously unthinkable milestone of less than 500 new HIV cases per 100,000 live births, thanks to PEPFAR. Such a success story demonstrates that with focused effort, an AIDS-free land can be achieved. The Safe Births, Healthy Babies initiative promises to do just that and will advance the global effort to end HIV/AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 – provided the Republicans stop interfering with a superb soft-power accomplishment.

Meddling with good initiatives is but another example of Trump-era-inspired political chicanery. Just possibly, Mr. Bush’s pleas for reauthorization, the Biden administration’s insistence, and a newly sponsored bill to secure funding will finally make it to the floor of the House – even a House led by a speaker who is an anti-abortion hard-liner. But we have no guarantees.

PEPFAR has no abortion advocacy hidden in its legislative skirts. But all manner of formerly easy Congressional actions have become distorted in the Trumpian era in which we are living, causing instability and suffering in both the U.S. and around the world.

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