News & Election Videos
Election 2008 Obama vs. McCain | Clinton vs. McCain | Latest 2008 Polls | Latest 2008 News


Gerson's Misplaced PEPFAR Anger

By Tom Coburn

In Michael Gerson's contemptuous, and factually loose, op-ed about what he calls the "Coburn Seven" and our effort to preserve the life-saving success of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), he asks readers to weigh the moral scale between seven United States Senators and 3 million HIV/AIDS infected people, many of whom are frail and malnourished.

This is not difficult for me to imagine. As a practicing physician, I have held AIDS patients in my arms, not just in a phrase.

Twenty years ago, I delivered a baby girl who would become the first child I delivered to die from AIDS. I discovered she was infected with HIV after I diagnosed her mother with late-stage AIDS. The mother died two and a half weeks after we learned she had the disease. Her daughter struggled for seven years before she joined her mother. Sadly, this would not be the first AIDS patient I would treat and lose in my practice.

Since I was first elected to Congress in 1994 these experiences have been a guide. Between 1995 and 2001, when I left the House, I wrote and passed the first Baby AIDS law designed to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies. I also led the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act. Throughout these projects, I helped bring together disparate groups like the Family Research Council and ACT-UP long before it was fashionable for Republicans to find common cause with celebrity activists.

Yet, in spite of my long commitment to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, which included a stint as a co-chair of President Bush's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (where I was an advocate for PEPFAR), Gerson believes I have a "generalized hostility to AIDS prevention." In his op-ed he goes on to impugn the character, integrity and motives of those of the "Coburn Seven" - Jim DeMint, Jeff Sessions, Saxby Chambliss, David Vitter, Jim Bunning and Richard Burr. Gerson accuses us of tremendous "pride" for "blocking" the bill (we are all happy to debate it on the floor as long as we can improve the bill with amendments). Gerson then condemns us for being the bad kind of conservatives who are "rigid, stingy and indifferent to human suffering."

Yet, the fact is each of the "Coburn Seven" regard PEPFAR as America's most significant foreign policy accomplishment since the Marshall Plan. Since the enactment of PEPFAR in 2003, AIDS treatment has been so successful that it has literally given new life to millions with HIV who were barely clinging to life, a phenomenon referred to as the 'Lazarus effect.' Each of us also is committed to working with the President and our colleagues to pass a reauthorization that will meet the original goals of PEPFAR.

Part of Gerson's moral outrage is focused on my controversial stance that AIDS treatment dollars be spent on treatment. I want to preserve PEPFAR's original formula that sends at least 55 percent of all dollars to AIDS treatment so widows and orphans and actual patients, not program officers and consultants, will be the primary beneficiaries of the program. This formula is made all the more important because the new authorization calls for a three-fold increase in funding from $15 billion over five years to $50 billion over five years. Moreover, this smart and well-designed policy, which Gerson once supported but now scorns, is a major reason why PEPFAR has been a Marshall Plan-like response, rather than a Katrina-like response, to the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Along with Senators Burr and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), I have introduced a bill that would maintain the U.S. commitment to providing treatment to millions living with HIV/AIDS while setting a goal of ending once and for all the twin tragedies of baby AIDS and AIDS orphans. Who then is the bigger supporter of PEPFAR - those of us who want to continue its success by keeping it intact or those who want to radically reverse everything that has made the program work, yet triple its funding?

Gerson's determination to critique not just our policy concerns but our morality suggests that he is viewing this debate as proxy battle in the broader struggle in the Republican Party between what he views as "seedy" or "anti-government" conservatism and the "compassionate" conservatism he helped shape in the White House. That's a broader debate that I welcome.

In the meantime, I'd welcome a thoughtful debate about PEPFAR. Unfortunately, all Gerson has shown is that demagoguery is the last refuge of a former administration official looking for a legacy.

Copyright 2008, Real Clear Politics

Facebook | Email | Print |

Sponsored Links

Tom Coburn
Author Archive