AIDS, Africa and the "culture of life"

Seeking to soften his hard right image, George W. Bush speaks of the need to help the least among us. Is it all just talk?

Published June 2, 2005 6:21PM (EDT)

The president's "culture of life" political agenda isn't playing so well these days, not even with members of his own party. The Republicans' intervention in the Terri Schiavo case backfired on them -- and not just because it made Tom Delay the face of their party -- and public opinion continues to turn against the president on stem cell research. Last week, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter suggested that he has the votes to prevail in the Senate if Bush vetoes legislation on embryonic stem cell research now making its way through Congress.

Maybe that's why Bush tried so hard to put a softer face on the "culture of life" during his press conference earlier this week. Asked what policy initiatives he will be pursuing to advance the "culture of life," Bush didn't mention Terri Schiavo or Roe v. Wade. Instead, he said that promoting a "culture of life" means constantly reminding people "that we have a responsibility to the less -- to the least of us in our society. I mean, part of a culture of life is to continue to expand the faith-based and community-based initiative to help people who hurt. Part of it is to recognize that in a society that is as blessed as we are that we have a responsibility to help others, such as AIDS victims on the continent of Africa, or people who hunger in sub-Sahara, for example. So the culture of life is more than just an issue like embryonic stem cell; it's promoting a culture that is mindful that we can help -- to help save lives through compassion. And my administration will continue to do so."

But as Geraldine Sealey reports today in a joint project by Salon and Rolling Stone, the president's talk of compassion for AIDS victims in Africa hasn't always been matched with the resources required to help. In 2003, Bush pledged to spend $15 billion over five years in the fight against AIDS, most of it in sub-Saharan Africa. Since then, Sealey says, Bush has been "inexplicably stingy and mind-bogglingly slow to act." The president has sometimes opposed efforts in Congress to fully fund his pledge. And when the money has come, Sealey says it has often been spent on "moralistic and unproven programs that make abstinence the centerpiece of HIV prevention."

It's great to be "mindful" of the need to help, but if Bush is serious about the "culture of life" -- or at least serious about looking like he's serious -- he's going to have to do more than just think about it.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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