Activists occupied Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy’s Capitol office to demand a reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
PEPFAR was created under George W. Bush’s administration in 2003 and has provided over $100 billion in global HIV/AIDS response. The program requires reauthorization every five years.
In a video shared to X, protestors are seen linking arms on their knees while chanting “pass PEPFAR now, McCarthy,” urging the Speaker to bring an authorization vote to the House floor.
In another video, a woman wearing a rainbow colored “HIV POSITIVE” shirt holds a sign reading, “JOIN THE FIGHT TO END AIDS NOW!”
Six activists were arrested by Capitol police following the demonstration in McCarthy’s office. The protestors continued shouting as Capitol police escorted them out.
BREAKING: Activists are occupying @SpeakerMcCarthy’s office demanding a full 5 year reauthorization of PEPFAR, which some Rs are opposing. Background: https://t.co/nQVnCxPDE0 pic.twitter.com/wCZx4Z6wzu
— Alice Miranda Ollstein (@AliceOllstein) September 11, 2023
PEPFAR has been reauthorized three times since its inception in 2008, 2013, and 2018.
New Jersey representative Chris Smith and Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith have led opposition, along with fellow Republican lawmakers, arguing against renewing PEPFAR due to restrictions lifted by the Biden administration in 2021 which prevented funds from the program being used to provide abortions.
The lawmakers note PEPFAR would have enough funds to exist without United States funding and also claimed the program had been “hijacked” to provide abortions through the program.
“That’s the gee-whiz moment that’s happening when I have conversations with people who do believe in the sanctity of life,” Smith told Politico. “I’m encouraged that within two or three minutes of a conversation people would say, ‘That’s not what we signed up for. We signed up to go after HIV and AIDS aggressively and effectively, not to have a diversion of priority to abortion on demand.'”
Former Senator Bill Frist, who supported the program as Senate Majority Leader in 2003, criticized efforts against reauthorizing PEPFAR.
“Allowing a significant lapse in the program would erode our international standing at a time when we are in a geopolitical competition with China and Russia,” he said, per the outlet. “Throughout our country’s history, no initiative has had a more profound impact or saved more lives around the world than PEPFAR.”
Frist countered opposition by saying he had seen “no evidence” of claims the program would fund abortions.
“On the contrary, the program gives the children of HIV-positive mothers an opportunity for a life full of promise,” he said.
Coauthor of PEPFAR and California Representative Barbara Lee reportedly plans a lobbying blitz for the program when the House reconvenes this month.
“For 20 years, we’ve passed clean reauthorizations on a bipartisan basis to keep this program running, and this September we’re at risk of it lapsing,” Lee said.
“The Biden administration got elected asserting that it would be the administration to put the global HIV response back on track to defeat HIV as a public health threat by 2030,” said executive director of the Health Global Access Project Asia Russell who noted that allowing PEPFAR’s reauthorization to lapse would “completely derail and break” Biden’s commitment.
“AIDS is still an emergency,” Russell continued. “There is more than one preventable AIDS death every minute around the world even though we have biomedical and structural interventions that could make this a thing of the past.”