NEW YORK - November 9 – The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed deep concern about a U.S. government policy that ties the hands of public health service providers and those who work with them in the global fight against AIDS.
“Combating the spread of HIV/AIDS and caring for those infected with the virus is the global public health challenge of the century,” said Claudia Flores, an attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “The current U.S. government policy shackles those trying to rise to the challenge, and prevents them from saving lives.”
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today, the ACLU and a host of other advocates lay out the public health impact of restricting funds for HIV/AIDS prevention and education to organizations that have a policy “explicitly opposing prostitution.” As a result of this policy, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide these services are forced to choose between accepting U.S. funding and adopting a policy that alienates and stigmatizes many high-risk communities.
“We all want to reduce the number of people infected and living with HIV/AIDS,” said Paul Zeitz of the Global AIDS Alliance. “Restricting or eliminating funding for public health organizations will only serve to increase the number of those infected and those who die.”
The law that mandates this policy, the “AIDS Leadership Act,” was intended to address and overcome the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Congress specifically determined that one of the goals of the law is to “increase the participation of at-risk populations in programs designed to encourage behavioral and social change and reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.”
The policy is so extreme, the ACLU said, that the NGOs are forbidden from engaging in any speech or activity that could be perceived as insufficiently opposed to prostitution. Moreover, they are forced to adopt an organization-wide policy that restricts them from using their own private funding to engage in such speech or activities.
The United States, as well as the international community, has long recognized that it is standard public health practice not to stigmatize and alienate specific communities who are at high risk for contracting HIV/AIDS. Denying all funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development to organizations that do not take the pledge is in direct contradiction to this long held public health practice, the ACLU said.
In its legal brief, the groups said that requiring NGOs that work primarily with health and social services to take a political stance opposing sex work thwarts their ability to approach this community in a non-judgmental and non-moralistic fashion. Those already infected will be discouraged from acknowledging their condition and seeking treatment because of a fear of being shunned or abused. Those in high-risk communities 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.
“This kind of judgment has no place in the battle against HIV/AIDS,” said Judy Auerbach, Vice President of Public Policy and Program Development of amfAR, The American Foundation for AIDS Research. “Withholding accurate information about HIV prevention, care and treatment -- especially from people with heightened vulnerability to HIV infection -- amounts to public health malpractice. The vital benefits of HIV/AIDS research belong to us all.”
The organizations that signed onto today’s brief are: AIDS Action, American Foundation for AIDS Research, American Humanist Organization, Center for Health and Gender Equity, Center for Reproductive Rights, Center for Women Policy Studies, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, Feminist Majority, Gay Men's Health Crisis, Global AIDS Alliance, Guttmacher Institute, Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, Human Rights Watch, Institute of Human Rights of Emory University, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region, International Women's Health Coalition, Physicians for Human Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., Population Action International, Population Council, Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, and The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.
The brief is available online at: www.aclu.org/WomensRights/WomensRights.cfm?ID=19379&c=33