The State Department gave a prominent anti-LGBTQ religious organization a grant to combat HIV/AIDS in South Africa through a religious program that pressures kids into pledging that they will abstain from sex until marriage.
An affiliate of Focus on the Family (FOTF) received a $49,505 grant under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) from the State Department’s Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator on September 18, 2017, while the department was under the leadership of then-Secretary Rex Tillerson, according to USA Spending. Focus on the Family’s Thriving Family is tasked with using these funds to prevent HIV and AIDS by implementing its global abstinence-only purity pledge program, called “No Apologies,” to 7,000 “learners” in 90 schools in South Africa between October 2017 and September 2018.
South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic in the world, with nearly 19 percent of its population, a total of 7.1 million people, living with the deadly sexually transmitted infection as of 2016, according to the U.K.-based global HIV and AIDS organization Avert.
PEPFAR was created in 2003 under the George W. Bush administration to combat the global epidemic — an effort Focus on the Family’s leadership has frequently criticized.
Focus on the Family’s founder and chairman emeritus, James Dobson, has long used his position with the organization to fight against effective efforts to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS, to demonize LGBTQ people, and even to oppose global funding from PEPFAR, suggesting that the money would go to promote “wickedness” and prostitution.
Experts say that the group’s purity pledge approach is completely ineffective and in fact detrimental.
Focus on the Family spreads its abstinence-only “No Apologies” program, which promises to teach the “truth about life, love, and sex,” to teens in countries crippled by the AIDS epidemic throughout the world.
According to the organization’s website, 2 million people between the ages of 12 and 22 have taken the program’s purity pledge and the group makes wild claims about its effectiveness. FOTF boasts that, in 2011, a survey found 92 percent of 1,500 Malaysian students who had gone through the program claimed to have kept their pledge of “sexual purity.”
The program shows students a 30-minute video with testimonies from peers who went through the program and teaches students about healthy relationships, overcoming relationship challenges, the various components of humans, and “the difference between love, lust and infatuation.”
It also teaches students how to reject sexualized pop culture, the consequences of premarital sex, why abstinence “works every time,” and the value of marriage.
“Focus on the Family Africa has used the No Apologies program to take the lead in promoting abstinence, not safe sex, as the route to curbing the spread of AIDS, and creating more stable family situations,” the organization explains on its website. “This is a powerful program centered around the value of each young person, character, and making a commitment to their future.”
In an email, Paul Batura, Focus on the Family’s vice president of communications, said Focus on the Family Africa is an independent global partner and has been contracted by the South African government to alleviate the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa.
“Focus on the Family Africa’s ‘No Apologies’ character-based abstinence education program has served hundreds of thousands of South African students over more than a decade and is highly regarded by South African government officials, school principals, parents and community members as an effective part of the solution to the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Batura wrote.
‘Wickedness around the world’
After AIDS began sweeping the globe in the 1980s, James Dobson and Focus on the Family were among the most vocal opponents of taking concrete action to address the epidemic, prompting President Ronald Reagan’s own surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, to publicly chastise Dobson and the late televangelist Rev. D. James Kennedy in 1989 for their response to the crisis.
Specifically, Dobson and Kennedy helped promote misinformation about how HIV can be contracted, claiming the virus could be spread through kissing or mosquito bites. Koop was livid.
“The Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible,” Koop told Charisma & Christian Life magazine in 1989.
Koop acknowledged that Dobson had initially shown some willingness to promote AIDS awareness. “I don’t know what happened to him,” he said. “He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again, his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”
Though the public’s understanding of HIV and AIDS increased greatly over the next decade, Dobson’s did not. In 1992, Dobson sent out a fundraising letter defending his abstinence-only, anti-contraception rhetoric. The letter contained a passage that claimed, “[N]ot one of 800 sexologists at a recent conference raised a hand when asked if they would trust a thin rubber sheath to protect them during intercourse with a known HIV infected person. And yet they’re perfectly willing to tell our kids that ‘safe sex’ is within reach and that they can sleep around with impunity.”
Again, in 2006, after President George W. Bush proposed an increase in the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS as part of his PEPFAR plan, Dobson wrote a letter to Congress opposing the increase. The money, the letter warned, would fund “needle exchange programs, legalization of prostitution, and, unbelievably, support for George Soros’ organizations,” as well as “all kinds of wickedness around the world.” Dobson also complained that billions in PEPFAR money was “going toward terrible programs that are immoral as well as ineffective. For example, to promote condom distribution, people associated with these government programs have dressed up like condoms and created ceramic sculptures of male genitalia.”
In an emailed statement on Tuesday, the State Department defended its recent decision to give Focus on Family Africa the PEPFAR grant, saying the group had been working with the South African government since 2002 and had reached millions of students in provinces across the country.
The program is “a highly inter-active, character-based abstinence curriculum…designed to discourage early sexual debut/activities and other high-risk behavior and empower strong character development among youth,” a spokesperson wrote.
And while Thriving Family teaches that abstinence is the “best method to prevent HIV,” the State Department wrote, the program provides referrals for services and information that it does not offer.
“The State Department plans to combat the AIDS epidemic through every means available, while always taking into context local factors, needs and experience,” the spokesperson said. “All interventions must always be developmentally appropriate for those they are intended to serve.”
‘Little to no evidence’
In recent years, PEPFAR itself has moved away from abstinence-only strategies because they are not effective, according to Alana Sharp, a policy associate for amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.
“There’s a lot of evidence that shows it is not effective as an HIV prevention strategy,” Sharp told ThinkProgress, noting that in 2015, PEPFAR’s own guidance described abstinence-only programs as having “little to no evidence of efficacy and have been shown (in some cases) to have negative effects on young people’s risky sexual behaviors.” Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have reported similar results.
“The issue with abstinence is that, theoretically, it can be effective, but when young people do choose to have sex, despite their intention not to, they’re not prepared with information about how to protect themselves or their partners,” Sharp said. She added that this is especially concerning in a South African context, “where many young people are already having sex,” and often young women’s first encounters may be coerced or forced.
Considering Focus on the Family’s history of erasing gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities and rejecting their right to marry, religious purity pledges can be especially stigmatizing and dangerous to those young people.
“I think these programs will be harmful, and just ineffective — providing info that’s not relevant to them, not useful to them, and [won’t] protect them against HIV,” Sharp said.
Still, despite all of this evidence, the the Trump administration released a 2018 PEPFAR operational plan late last year that emphasized abstinence before marriage — “sexual risk avoidance” — as the principal strategy to fight HIV/AIDS. The administration has reportedly discouraged the use of terms like “’evidence-based” and “science-based” from government documents.
Funding a church
Right Wing Watch reported on Tuesday that in 2016, Focus on the Family successfully convinced the Internal Revenue Service that it should be treated as a church, rather than as a regular non-profit. This distinction means that the organization no longer needs to be transparent about its finances and is exempt from portions of the Affordable Care Act. But it also means that the State Department effectively opted to directly fund a church, paying for it to do its religious work in a foreign country under the guise of actual policy efforts.
Dena Sher, legislative assistant director at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told ThinkProgress in an email that the 2017 PEPFAR grant should not have been issued to Focus on the Family for that very reason.
“Focus on the Family now claims to be a church and its programs are designed to promote religion. This grant will fund an abstinence-only program for thousands of teens in schools in South Africa, asking them to take a purity pledge,” she wrote. “Studies show that this approach is ineffective and unethical. The government should never fund faith-based projects that aren’t based on science. These students’ health and well-being should come first.”
Sharp agreed. “It’s really unfortunate because we’re in a moment where we have very effective strategies to protect people against HIV,” she said. “We should be doing everything we can do be delivering evidence-supportive prevention strategies, like PREP, like condoms. To not be doing so, I think we’re being harmful.”