A few weeks ago, former Senator Rick Santorum invited me and our Morning Joe crew into his home in Virginia for a discussion about the current Congressional stalemate around reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. At the same time, the United States Senate was awaiting—but not expecting—a bill from the House of Representatives that was a clean, five-year reauthorization of the legislation that has saved 25 million lives and prevented 5.5 million babies from being born HIV-positive.
Santorum is an advocate for continuing PEPFAR with the same bipartisan compromise that had driven Republicans and Democrats to come together under former President George W. Bush’s leadership more than 20 years ago. The former Senator was integral to those early negotiations. While still holding true to his conservative values, he unequivocally endorses the global humanitarian aid program.
“It was not an easy coalition to put together initially,” Santorum told me. In the lead up to Bush signing PEPFAR into law in 2003, the epidemic was taking millions of lives across the world while raging out of control in many low- and middle-income countries, with those in sub-Saharan Africa hit the hardest. Of course, those were the countries without financial resources to pay for the very expensive drugs that were saving lives in more prosperous countries like the United States. Tens of millions were living with HIV in those places. While not surprisingly in the poorest regions, only 50,000 people were receiving medical treatment that could halt the progression of HIV infection to AIDS and certain death.
“Republicans and Democrats led by President Bush really pushed for a more targeted effort from the United States,” Santorum said. A staunch supporter of the United States’ leadership position in the world, “because we believe we do things better,” he said. “But we also have political considerations. We had to deal with what was happening on a global scale, with a global effort … that was consistent with the values of many in Congress.”
In the early aughts, Congress was mainly controlled by Republicans. And Santorum was one of the most recognizable among them. “We wanted to fashion something that was uniquely American,” he said, “that upheld our values of preserving life, but also respecting life from the point of view of abortion and other types of those issues.” The former Senator is not in support of choice or sexual activity outside of marriage, but he recognized the need for a program that reflected American values and at the same time addressed these concerns.
Only a couple weeks after Santorum opened his home, Senator Ben Cardin, Democratic from Maryland, joined me on the set of Morning Joe. It was December 1, the 35th anniversary of World’s AIDS Day. Cardin underscored that the PEPFAR remains one of the most effective foreign assistance programs the United States has ever undertaken. Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough directly challenged the allegations by some on the far right that PEPFAR was akin to support for abortion. He pointed out that the State Department’s position could not be any clearer: PEPFAR is not about abortions. Money from PEPFAR cannot be used to lobby for or to perform abortions. “It is about saving lives,” Scarborough stressed.
The Senator bristled at the notion that continues to stymie the life-saving international humanitarian aid program’s Congressional reauthorization. “It is absolutely a fabricated issue when there is not funding for abortion in the PEPFAR program,” Cardin said. “The PEPFAR program is pro-life—25 million lives have been saved. I’ve been to Africa. I’ve seen the people that have been saved as a result of the PEPFAR program … We’ve seen it provide stability in African nations. We’ve seen it provide economic prosperity and stronger relations with the United States.”
PEPFAR has also trained 340,000 healthcare workers to deliver HIV care and supported 7 million orphans, vulnerable children and their caregivers. With all the lives saved, and all its benefits, politicizing such a benevolent program defies reason.
“This program has been transformational,” Cardin said. “It’s made a huge difference. If we don’t reauthorize, it gives the message that we’re not in to complete the job. We need the partners around the world to work with us.”
He acknowledged that some members of Congress are concerned about the outside rating groups that push PEPFAR as antithetical to their “pro-life” stance. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Cardin has heard from those who stand in the way of PEPFAR’s future role in the world’s fight against the epidemic of HIV/AIDS.
As the future of PEPFAR hangs in the balance, it is worth looking back to the program’s bipartisan origins. More than 20 years ago, then-President George W. Bush called Dr. Anthony Fauci into his office and told the esteemed scientist and clinician that the United States could make a difference in the skyrocketing death toll caused by the devastating disease AIDS. In 2003, with the support of a strongly bipartisan group of lawmakers, the staunchly pro-life president signed PEPFAR into law. As HIV/AIDS continues to spread across the globe, there can be no better time to look at the leadership of the former president so that this legislation can continue to save millions of lives.