Critics Unimpressed with
Reagan's AIDS Gambit
APRIL 10, 1987 / MONTROSE VOICE 13
By Celia Hooper
WASHINGTON (UPI)—President Reagan twice in recent weeks broached the
subject of AIDS, but some experts
believe he took the wrong tack in his
verbal entrance into the fight against
an epidemic that has killed over 19,000
On March 31, Reagan and French
Prime Minister Jacques Chirac jointly
announced the settlement of a dispute
between French and American laboratories over the discovery of the AIDS
virus, and on April 1 Reagan made his
first major address on AIDS before the
Philadelphia College of Physicians.
"After almost six years of silence on
the epidemic," said Rep. Henry Wax-
man D.-Calif., chairman of the House
Energy and Commerce Subcommittee
on Health, "the president has finally
said that he will fight the disease."
White House aides insist Reagan's
entrance into the AIDS discussion came
just because the College of Physicians
was an appropriate forum. Spokesman
Marlin Fitzwater said, "It was quite a
natural evolution. This is a national disease that has come upon the public very
rapidly. A year ago ... people didn't
understand AIDS or thought it was confined to a small segment of society."
But Waxman cautioned, "If (Reagan)
stops at this speech, we will have years
more of bickering between public health
figures and moralists, more infections
and more deaths."
Harsher congressional criticism of
Reagan's address came from a member
of his own party: "This peril that confronts the nation is not comprised of
words," said Sen. Lowell Weicker, ranking Republican on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees
acquired immune deficiency syndrome
"It's comprised of very complex viruses and a medical mystery that nobody
has been able to unlock, and it ain't
going to be unlocked by the speech in
Philadelphia by the president," Weicker
Speaking to reporters following the
president's speech, Weicker said, "The
most damaging piece of deception as far
as the president is concerned is that he
says, 'I'm asking for $100 million more
in AIDS research.'
"That sounds very good until you
hear that he is asking for a $600 million
cut in the funds to go to the National
Institutes of Health for basic biomedical research. The net of all that is he has
cut $500 million for AIDS."
The National Academy of Sciences, in
a special report last October, urged
expenditure of $1 billion for AIDS education and $1 billion for research annually by 1990. The report chastised the
administration for a lackluster education effort.
Until his speech, Reagan delegated
visibility on AIDS policy to four physicians at the Department of Health and
Human Services: Secretary Otis Bowen,
Assistant Secretary Robert Windom,
FDA Commissioner Frank Young and
Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
James Brown, spokesman for Windom, said that Reagan's low profile did
not mean that he is unconcerned with
the issue. Brown pointed to medical
advances, such as the discovery of the
AIDS virus, the rapid development of
blood tests and the drug AZT, the
budget increase for AIDS and the surgeon general's report on AIDS as major
"These were all done under appointees of President Reagan," Brown said.
"He would get the blame if things weren't done; he should get the credit when
they are done."
Dr. Edward Brandt, chancellor ofthe
University of Maryland in Baltimore
and former assistant secretary of
health, agreed that research progress
on AIDS was "unparalleled." He said he
was generally satisfied with progress
against the disease but said he had not
seen Reagan's speech.
"I don't worry about what the president says. I worry about what the Public
Health Service is doing—that's the
important thing. My own view is that
the PHS just needs to be free to do what
needs to be done."
Asked if the administration would
adopt a "watch what we do, not what we
say" approach, Fitzwater said, "A little
Brown said the PHS top doctors, Koop
and Windom, were both "delighted to
have the president speak out."
But outside the government, health
and AIDS experts were neither delighted nor surprised with Reagan's speech
Dr. June Osborn, epidemiologist and
dean of the University of Michigan
School of Public Health, said she found
no surprises in Reagan's comments. "I
was sorely disappointed," Osborn said.
"The speech signals no change on Reagan's part—that's the problem. People
were looking forward to some federal
leadership," Osborn said.
In his speech, Reagan advocated a
modest federal role in AIDS education:
"It must be to give educators accurate
information about the disease. How
that information is used must be up to
schools and parents."
Reagan stressed instruction in morality as a complement to AIDS education.
He told reporters that he favored AIDS
education "as long as they teach that
one of the answers to it is abstinence—if
you say it's not how you do it, but that
you don't do it."
Stressing the key role of education in
the fight against AIDS, Osborn said
Reagan's approach to AIDS stood "in
shocking contrast to those of (other)
industrialized nations that have frank
educational campaigns that assume
there are some people who don't practice
monogamy and chastity. We owe all
citizens—including those who don't
practice monogamy and chastity—
leadership and guidance on AIDS."
Great Britain, for example, has begun
mailing out brochures, posting AIDS
warnings on billboards and has been
broadcasting AIDS-related messages
Osborn was most critical of a vow
Reagan made in his speech: "I am determined that we'll find a cure for AIDS
We'll find a way or make one."
"He seemed to be saying if we just try
hard enough we will get a cure for
AIDS," Osborn said. "That's the last
thing on the list of promises we should
be giving. ... We may never find a cure
for the viral disease."
Fitzwater said that when Reagan
referred to a "cure" in his speech he was
speaking in general terms. "I think
'cure' was used as a generic word to describe any number of medical solutions
to the problem," Fitzwater said. "It was"
not meant to be a medical term."
Thomas Stoddard, executive director
of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund for homosexual issues, said
that if Reagan's AIDS speech marked
the beginning of a more forthright
approach to the issue, "It is not a promising beginning. His statements were
naive and ignorant about AIDS and
about the federal government's role in
combating the disease."
Stoddard said that to date only Koop
had been "forthright and frank" in
addressing the AIDS crisis.
"No other official has fully faced up to
AIDS," Stoddard said. "He is a hero
Koop has carried a frank anti-AIDS
message to audiences across the country, promoting sex education in the
early grade school years, and prevention of AIDS through abstinence,
monogamy, and for those who practice
neither, use of condoms.
His efforts prompted a public scolding
in March from conservative Eagle
Forum President Phyllis Schlafly and a
continuing public disagreement with
Education Secretary William Bennett.
The disagreement over AIDS education between Bennett and Koop began
in January during a Cabinet-level
Domestic Policy Council meeting during which Bennett described the Public
Health Service approach as "morally
empty." The dispute has since evolved
into a gentlemen's agreement to disagree.
Bennett recently told school board
officials he doubted the differences
would ever be resolved because the issue
"is one where people feel very strongly."
White House press spokesman Marlin
Fitzwater denied that there were major
divisions over AIDS within the administration: "They're coming at it from different perspectives," in that Bennett is
concerned with educating children and
Koop with educating adults about
Koop is approaching it from a public
health standpoint, Fitzwater said,
while "Bennett's job is values, education, information, the emotional status"
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, head of the consumer health group Public Citizen Health
Research Group, said, "If Reagan personally would say the kinds of things
that his surgeon general is saying, I
would have confidence that (Reagan) is
doing more than just deceiving the public."
"I would rather educate (sexually
active) kids while they are alive than
pray for them after they're dead as Reagan seems to be doing."
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