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Bush marks 20 years of PEPFAR, joining Catholic leaders in calling for its renewal in HIV/AIDS fight

Then U.S. President George W. Bush signs a bill that extends the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, in the East Room of the White House in Washington July 30, 2008. (OSV News photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Former President George W. Bush marked the 20th anniversary of the PEPFAR program at a Feb. 24 event in the nation’s capital, casting the program as an example of the global leadership the United States can provide.

PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, authorized by Congress and Bush in 2003, is the U.S. government’s global effort to combat HIV/AIDS. The program is the largest global health program devoted to a single disease. It is credited with saving 25 million lives and scaling back the epidemic’s spread. The program, in part, distributes antiretrovirals in countries where as many as one-third of adults were impacted.

Congress will consider the program’s reauthorization this year.

Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ and its overseas relief and development agency, Catholic Relief Services, have backed the program’s lifesaving efforts.

“PEPFAR is one of the most successful global health programs in history and is credited with changing the trajectory of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Nikki Gamer, CRS’s senior public affairs manager, told OSV News. She noted that since PEPFAR’s authorization in 2003, it has “saved millions of lives, prevented millions of new infections, and supported 7.1 million orphans and vulnerable children around the world.”

“We would honestly love for the program to continue to enjoy bipartisan support and just be cleanly reauthorized this year without changes and without being politicized,” she said.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush called for the program’s authorization, arguing, “Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many.”” It was authorized that same year.

Bush quipped to the audience that he was in Washington not because he misses it, but to advocate for PEPFAR.

“We’re asking for the program to be refunded,” Bush said.

Since Bush left office, many in his party have adopted a more isolationist approach to foreign policy, with some of Bush’s fellow Republicans growing increasingly hostile to arguments in favor of foreign aid. However, Bush argued that the PEPFAR program’s results are measurable.

Bush said the United States is a prosperous nation and “to whom much has been given, much is expected” — a reference to Jesus Christ’s words in Luke 12:48.

“We’re a big enough nation to do more than one thing,” Bush said. “To continue the fight against AIDS on the continent of Africa, to support the Ukrainian freedom fighters, is not going to strain our capacity to help our own citizens.”

Bush said he does not believe Americans “have lost our compassion.”

“I think this country is a compassionate country that cares deeply about people who suffer,” Bush said.

Bush said he saw “the spirit of life” amid difficult situations in his advocacy work for the program.

“Human life is precious and we’re all God’s children,” Bush said. “I said that when I was campaigning, and I meant it.”

The program, Bush said, is both moral and in the national security interest of the United States, as such a drastic loss of life across the African continent would have destabilized the region.

Bush called health equity a key component of peace, a sentiment Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Speaker emerita, also expressed in her own remarks at the event.

Pelosi celebrated the bipartisan support for the program across 10 Congresses and four presidential administrations.

“Pope Paul VI said, ‘If you want peace, work for justice,'” Pelosi, a Catholic, said. “PEPFAR is about justice; it’s about health justice.”

Pelosi said she could not resist coming to the event “to salute President Bush and Laura Bush” for their work and advocacy to launch the program, and “their ongoing dedication to it.”

Gamer said CRS partners with the U.S. government to implement funds authorized under PEPFAR.

“We care for AIDS orphans and vulnerable children throughout Africa, and we work to develop processes that emphasize local capacity building, institutional strengthening, and accompaniment,” Gamer said. “CRS works to empower local actors to sustainably respond to the public health crises in communities.”

Catholics, Gamer said, should know that “Catholic Relief Services reaches out to accompany and empower those on the margins and is deeply committed to the solidarity Pope Francis speaks about.”

“CRS serves communities impacted by HIV and AIDS in ways that are in full alignment with our Catholic identity and values,” she said.

In a Jan. 28 statement marking the program’s anniversary, President Joe Biden, a Catholic Democrat, said PEPFAR “remains a powerful example of America’s unmatched ability to drive progress and make life better for people around the world.”

“I look forward to working with Congress on PEPFAR’s reauthorization this year,” Biden said.

“This is a successful public health program that has enjoyed fulsome support from Democrats and Republicans over the past 20 years, and we would love for it to advance and pass quickly,” Gamer said. “We hope and trust that Congress can come together this year on this program that so significantly benefits the common good.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.

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