Sometimes I think I have become immune to Washington, D.C., feeling as though nothing can shock or surprise me, and then I hear a story that brings my expectations to an all-time low. Seven senators -- known as the "Coburn Seven" -- are playing politics with the lives of millions of people affected by deadly diseases by blocking the reauthorization of the Global AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis bill.
AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis cause more than 90 percent of all deaths from infectious diseases around the world. A bill that will help fight these diseases passed in the U.S. House and has strong presidential support, but the "Coburn Seven" have blocked it from coming to a vote in the Senate. They say they want a mandate to shift money from prevention to treatment, but this argument is a fool's errand; for every person who goes on treatment, there are 2.5 people newly diagnosed.
The Global AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis program includes special provisions for orphans, women, and girls -- some of the hardest-hit populations in disease-ravaged villages and neighborhoods. These treatment and prevention programs are more than charity: They invest in local clinics and pharmacies and train nurses and doctors. They reach beyond the tired prevention debate of abstinence versus contraception and address a broad array of real-world factors that lead to infections, such as gender violence, unsanitary housing, and education.
Next month President Bush will attend the G8 meeting in Japan, and without a signed bill he has little leverage to gain commitments for aid from the partner countries.
More importantly, without the assurance of uninterrupted U.S. support, programs on the ground will begin to decrease their services -- including accepting new patients -- in order to guard their limited budgets.
Fighting pandemic diseases is and should be a nonpartisan issue. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson recently challenged these obstructionist senators, saying:
Without a five-year U.S. commitment on AIDS funding, other countries would be reluctant to put new people on treatment. And lives would be lost. Each of the Coburn Seven counts himself pro-life. If a bill came to the Senate floor that would save millions of unborn children, one assumes that pro-life members would push to improve it, accept a few necessary compromises and then enthusiastically support the legislation. It is difficult to imagine why pro-life legislation involving millions of Africans should be viewed differently.
Kevin Lum is the congregational network coordinator for Sojourners.