WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is poised to name as
head of its AIDS advisory council a former congressman who
regularly challenged the effectiveness of condoms as the
government's central strategy for fighting AIDS.
"We have a prevention strategy that's failed," former Rep. Tom
Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview Tuesday confirming his
pending appointment. The Bush administration has asked Coburn
to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS with
Louis Sullivan, who served as secretary of health and human
services under former President Bush and is not expected to be
as controversial a pick.
Coburn, an obstetrician who has returned to his family practice
in Muskogee, Okla., gained a reputation in Congress as a
hard-line conservative, fierce abortion opponent and supporter
of teaching sexual abstinence that excludes discussion of birth
Coburn said Tuesday his personal views would not dictate the
work of the panel, but he promised to challenge the national
focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV.
"Condoms are fairly effective against HIV if people will use
them," he said. "We have to ask a question: Are people going to
use them? ... We have had a strategy that says that's the
answer. We've spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of
millions of dollars and HIV infection is going up."
Government statistics show that HIV infection overall has been
stable in recent years, though studies suggest rates may rise
among certain groups including poor black women and young gay
Coburn said he wants to see more AIDS money focused on
preventing transmission in communities where the disease is
spreading most quickly, including minority women.
The administration has also asked nine people who served on the
council under President Clinton to stay on, and another 24 to
join the panel. An announcement is expected later this month.
The council is expected to have its first meeting in March or
April, Coburn said. AIDS activists offered mixed reaction to
"You can't hate the guy because he's always been out front
advocating for the issue," said Darin Johnson of AIDS Action.
But Johnson is also concerned: "Will the committee be a true
honest voice or is a council being put together that can
basically give a public green light for moving a lot of
conservative HIV policies?"
Wayne Turner of the AIDS group Act Up said he hopes Coburn's
views will spark needed debate. "Coburn is guaranteed to shake
things up," he said.
Coburn left the House at the end of 2000, fulfilling a pledge
to serve just six years in Congress. During his tenure, he was
a leading Republican on health issues and the primary sponsor
of legislation renewing the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides
more than $1 billion a year for AIDS prevention and treatment.
Coburn also made common cause with many Democrats as an early
Republican supporter of a patients' bill of rights.
He regularly challenged the effectiveness of condoms. In 1999,
he single-handedly held up popular legislation helping
uninsured women pay for cancer treatments because he insisted
that the government put warning labels on condoms.
Specifically, Coburn wanted to warn users that condoms do not
prevent the spread of a common venereal disease called human
papillomavirus, or HPV.
The twist was that the only way to prevent HPV's transmission
is abstinence from sex altogether. The government won't
advocate that, Coburn said at the time, because it's "not
"It's not proper to say you shouldn't have intercourse outside
of marriage, even though it's the only thing that's going to
work," he said.
On Tuesday, Coburn said he would direct the AIDS council based
on science and public health, not any political agenda.
"It shouldn't be based on someone's political philosophy," he
said. "It ought to be based on what's going to work."