By Drew Gibson
This past week, in my home state of Ohio, Representative Ron Amstutz sponsored a now-adopted bill which prohibits the distribution of any funding to Planned Parenthood of Ohio or any of its affiliates from a number of federal programs. Among those programs that would be completely frozen out of funding by this bill are The Violence Against Women Act, The Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act, The Infertility Prevention Project (US Dept of Health & Human Services) and The Minority HIV/AIDS initiative funds (Centers for Disease Control). For those of you keeping score at home, the Ohio state legislature could actually pass a bill that eliminates federally-sponsored funding for domestic violence prevention and care, free breast and cervical cancer screenings, regular STI screening and HIV/AIDS care for minorities in Ohio.
I can also tell you that this is not an aberration as was evidenced by The Susan G. Komen debacle earlier this year. Earlier this week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law a bill that effectively shuts down the state’s last remaining abortion clinic. Just yesterday, the House of Representatives approved a $33 billion cut in food assistance programs over the next 10 years and, while it will likely rot on the Senate floor, it shows the frame of mind we are in as a nation. It gives a person pause to think about what it means to be an American, a community member and an individual. Listening to political rhetoric, one could come away with the impression that the three things are mutually exclusive.
In 21st century America, it’s coming to pass that the important ethical question for people is not, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, but rather “who is my brother?” For many HIV positive individuals in Baltimore and across the country, the feeling of connection and kinship that makes communities and societies flourish simply isn’t there. Take the 21201 zip code here in Baltimore. Inside of it you have Camden Yards and The Walters Art Museum; you have the University of Maryland-Baltimore and The Peabody Institute. Walking down Charles St. you can see the cultural lifeline of the city wind past beautiful restaurants and hotels and brownstones. And yet, 6% of people with a 21201 zip code are HIV positive. Theoretically, if you knocked on 20 doors in that neighborhood, one of the people who answered would be living with HIV.
How can a society like this let something like that happen? We are the most powerful nation on the planet with more resources than anyone has ever had in the history of civilization. And yet there are parts of this country with HIV rates that would be at home in Sub-Saharan Africa. We spend more money than anyone in the world on healthcare and have only the 37th ranked healthcare quality according to the World Health Organization. It is not my opinion that this shouldn’t be happening to us; it is fact. Something is systemically broken when you have more money than anyone else and more innovation than anyone else, yet 50 million people remain uninsured.
I will admit at this point that whatever message I’ve been intending to convey has gotten partially jumbled thanks to the unending litany of depressing statistics that I’ve been writing down. My apologies if you were reading this during a commercial break of Dancing With The Stars and now can’t muster the strength to find joy in watching Gladys Knight do the Rumba. However, I think the silver lining to all of this is that people are looking for community and looking for a way to make change, but they don’t know how. I know that there are millions of people in this country who see the same injustices and want badly to get involved. It’s just that the first step is often the toughest. Watching the outpouring of support and activism for the death of Trayvon Martin and the Planned Parenthood funding mess, it is evident that our neighbors have deep convictions, but it often takes a jarring, tragic event to bring them to the surface. If we can learn to keep that energy going and to connect with one another in the absence of tragedy, then I believe we can begin swinging the pendulum the other way.