PRESIDENT BUSH had been in office only a few hours in January 2001 when, with the first strokes of his presidential pen, he reinstated the "global gag rule."
The rule, instituted by Ronald Reagan and lifted by Bill Clinton on his first day in office, prevents U.S. family-planning money from going to any overseas group that provides abortion services or counseling or lobbies for abortion rights -- even when the group uses its own money for such activities.
On Tuesday, Bush had a change of heart.
In asking Congress to swiftly pass his $15 billion global AIDS package, he magnanimously said the money should not be subject to the gag rule.
"We can turn our eyes away in resignation and despair or we can take decisive historic action to turn the tide against this disease and give the hope of life to millions who need our help now," he said. "The United States of America chooses the path of action and the path of hope."
Bravo and hooray.
Despite objections from some conservatives, who characterize the bill as throwing "taxpayer money at condom hand-out schemes in Africa," Bush kept his State of the Union promise to push for the funds.
But given Bush's history of fighting abortion and reproductive rights at every turn, one can't help but wonder why he is releasing this AIDS money with no anti-abortion, anti-reproductive rights strings attached.
He isn't, says Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood.
There are plenty of strings. This is another "war is peace" Bush spin, she says. With this bill, Bush is extending the gag rule, not lifting it.
The gag rule has never applied to AIDS funds. So Bush is lifting a restriction that never existed. Instead, he is adding some. Under this bill, groups that provide AIDS prevention as well as abortion services now must keep their abortion and family-planning programs financially and physically separate from its AIDS prevention work.
In other words, they can take the money, but they can't do AIDS work and family planning in the same facility.
If this legislation passes through Congress unchanged, poor and rural communities that have only one clinic would have to build a new one in order to separate their AIDS work from their family-planning work -- an unlikely development, given the depressed economies in the targeted African and Caribbean countries. Or they would have to shut down their family-planning clinic altogether in order to qualify for the AIDS money.
"It is so disingenuous," Feldt said by phone from Washington. "They're spinning this by saying they're not putting in a gag rule that never belonged there in the first place. What we need is a comprehensive AIDS bill that does not tie the hands of health-care providers."
In Africa, where more than half the AIDS victims are women, separating the women's clinics from the AIDS clinics makes no sense. Sometimes the best and most trusted health care in poor communities is found at women's clinics.
"Those who are attempting to impose their own theological perspective instead of applying proven public health practices are playing a deadly game," Feldt said. "An unconscionable game."
The word in Washington is that some congressional Republicans will introduce riders to the AIDS bill in the House today. Expect one to call for removing all references to condoms.
Sometimes you wonder if life isn't just one long "Simpsons" episode.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle