The U.S. Capitol Police arrested seven activists who staged a sit-in at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office on Monday demanding the renewal of a government-funded program that fights HIV and AIDS internationally.
The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a federally funded program also known as PEPFAR, works with non-profit organizations to combat HIV and AIDS and is credited with saving the lives of more than 25 million people across the globe since its implementation during the President George W. Bush era. But as its Sept. 30 expiration date looms, House Republicans have created a standstill for the program’s approval as they seek to add abortion-related restrictions, The New York Times reported.
Activists with the non-profit organizations Housing Works and Health Global Access Project called on McCarthy and House Republicans to approve the five-year extension without adding restrictions.
“PEPFAR has saved millions of lives. It is criminal for some members of Congress to treat it as a political football,” Charles King, CEO of Housing Works and one of the seven activists arrested Monday, said in a statement.
“AIDS isn’t over until it’s over for everyone. PEPFAR has been essential to helping people in developing countries flatten the curve of HIV transmission,” King added. “The United States has committed to the international goal of ending AIDS by 2030, and we cannot do that if PEPFAR is threatened.”
The activists sat in McCarthy’s congressional office in Washington chanting “Pass PEPFAR now, McCarthy” for 10-15 minutes before being arrested. The Capitol Police said that the seven individuals were charged with unlawful entry.
“House Republicans are playing political games with the lives of countless adults, children, and newborns with HIV and most affected by HIV across the globe and here in the U.S.”
PEPFAR has usually received bipartisan support in the past. It was most recently renewed for five years in 2018 with then-President Donald Trump’s signature.
But many Republicans baselessly claim that the program is related to their fight against abortion access, The Washington Post reported. One point of debate is whether PEPFAR funds can be used to support abortion, noted Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency that summarizes legislative issues for Congress.
House Global Health Subcommittee Chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), for example, falsely claimed in a June letter to House members that Biden has “hijacked” PEPFAR by using it to fund abortion access.
The PEPFAR funding is usually allocated towards certain groups across various countries that then use it to invest in staffing and long-term projects, Politico added. A portion of the funds also go towards supporting children whose parents are killed by the disease, according to Politico.
“House Republicans are playing political games with the lives of countless adults, children, and newborns with HIV and most affected by HIV across the globe and here in the U.S.,” Asia Russell, the executive director of Health GAP who was also arrested at McCarthy’s office Monday, said in a statement.
“Extremists in the House have sunk to a new low,” Russell continued. “Never in the twenty-year history of PEPFAR have lawmakers pulled such outrageous stunts. We demand a 5-year reauthorization of PEPFAR in its current form, and full funding for HIV treatment and prevention programs in the U.S.”