The Politics of Prevention: In a Nod to the Conservatives Who Put Him in Office, President Bush Packs His AIDS Policy Panel with Supporters of Abstinence-Based Sex Education. (AIDS)

Article excerpt

Imagine a conference room somewhere in Washington, D.C. Thirty-five presidential appointees debate federal AIDS policy. Stating at each other around the table are a gang member-turned-religious conservative, a former right-wing congressman who believes that condoms don't work, a onetime beauty queen who lobbies for abstinence until marriage, openly gay conservatives, liberals who support universal sex education, and two representatives of the pharmaceutical industry.

Welcome to the brave new world of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, which meets for the first time this month.

"It will be fascinating to see how the religious conservatives deal with those who advocate safe sex and needle exchange," says Cornelius Baker, executive director of Whitman-Walker Clinic, an AIDS service organization in Washington, D.C. "The split between Democrats and Republicans will be the least of the differences."

President Bush appointed approximately two dozen new members to the council in January, including cochair Tom Coburn, a former congressman from Oklahoma with a 0 rating on gay rights issues from the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign; Charles Francis and Abner Mason, openly gay Republicans; and Louis Suilivan, president of Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and a former secretary of Health and Human Services who in 1990 shelved a report on gay teen suicide.

The clashing political philosophies of the 35-member council, which retains nine Clinton appointees, highlights the fissures in the Bush administration's AIDS policy. After just over a year in office, the president has sought to push abstinence education to appease social conservatives while at the same time trying to prevent outcries from public health leaders, who often support comprehensive sex education.

Despite this ideological rift, it may be difficult to pigeonhole some of the more conservative members of the council. Patricia Funderburk Ware, the council's executive director, has been described by critics as antigay because she was a staff member at Americans for a Sound AIDS Policy, a right-wing group that has lobbied against gay rights and for abstinence-only sex education. But in an interview with The Advocate, Ware emphatically disputes that characterization while expressing support for gay-inclusive abstinence education and a desire to work closely with gays and lesbians.

"I got into this line of work because I saw too many of my young gay friends dying in the 1980s," she says. "If we teach teens to delay sex until marriage, we should also encourage gay teens to abstain until they can find a monogamous, faithful relationship with the person you choose as an adult. Multiple sexual partners is not a good idea for kids, gay or straight. I would tell any council member of whatever political persuasion that young gay kids have just as much right to find the love of their lives as anyone else."

Still, critics say Bush's appointments mark the first cracks in the bipartisan approach to federal AIDS policy that defined the Clinton era. Indeed, the appointments set off a crossfire between gay political groups. The Log Cabin Republicans lauded Bush for appointing "a wide diversity to the Advisory Council." But the National Stonewall Democrats said the president had packed the council with "antigay, unqualified people," and the group blasted Log Cabin for praising the appointments.

Since the establishment of the first AIDS council under President Reagan in 1986, its influence on federal AIDS policy has varied. But the group has always been highly politicized. When Reagan in 1987 named the first openly gay man to serve on the panel, Frank Lilly, religious conservatives protested wildly. …