Ryan White’s death in Indianapolis on Palm Sunday attracted nationwide attention. In retrospect, it is apparent that the initial public reaction to Ryan’s illness, demanding his exclusion from school, was as unwarranted as it was cruel. However, it is important to recognize that when his disease was first diagnosed, in 1984, AIDS was still considered a “medical mystery.” Its precise cause and means of transmission were unknown, but it was already very evident that it is a-horribly virulent, uniformly fatal degenerative disease. Under the circumstances, the public’s panicky reaction was understandable. If it had, in fact, turned out—as some authorities at first believed likely—that AIDS could be spread by casual contact, the panic would have spread and HIV carriers would certainly have been subject to quarantine as an essential public health measure.
The realization that AIDS is not transmitted by casual contact has made it possible for officialdom and a large part of the general public to react to AIDS with outpourings of sympathy and compassion rather than with, or at least as well as with, terror and hysteria. Would Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Donald Trump have demonstratively visited the dying lad if AIDS could be caught as easily as measles or chicken pox?
But there is a question that remains: while Ryan White was entering his prolonged death struggle, countless other Americans, young, middle-aged, and old, were dying of various causes around the country. On any given day, a major children’s hospital will be treating many tiny cancer patients engaged in a painful, hopeless struggle with the disease. The nation’s nursing homes and hospitals shelter thousands of victims of Alzheimer’s disease, a disease which is not contagious at all, and the ravages of which impinge terribly on family as well as on health care personnel. But we do not read of the rich and famous flying to the bedside of the typical Alzheimer’s or MS patient. We do not read of pilgrimages to the bedside of the patient dying of lung cancer.
The concentrated attention focused on Ryan White represents an underlying ambivalence in the attitude of our celebrities, the media, and the general public toward AIDS. On the one hand, if Ryan had caught AIDS as a teenaged homosexual prostitute, it is hardly conceivable that he would have been made the focal point of such an outpouring of love and compassion. On the other hand, the fact that he suffered as an “innocent” obscures the fact that his suffering was directly attributable to the “indecent acts” of the unknown blood donor who became infected and then—probably unknowingly—donated the contaminated blood that has now killed Ryan. Mysteriously, the very virulence of AIDS and the pitiable condition to which it reduces its victims before it inexorably kills them seems to be causing us to lose all awareness of the fact that AIDS is largely transmitted by behavior patterns that are—or ought to be—subject to a measure of individual and social control.
In a conference in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1987, I suggested that AIDS is having an impact on the theological and religious world rather like its impact on the immune system of its victims. The AIDS virus destroys the so-called T-4 lymphocytes, whose function is to alert the body’s immune system to the presence of dangerous intrusion. The AIDS situation seems to be destroying the theological equivalent of T-4 lymphocytes, and while it renders theologians incapable of recognizing what is going on, it also lets down the spiritual and moral barriers that inhibit the rapid spread of fatal infections.
Would it not be prudent and logical, in the face of this uniformly fatal malady, for federal officials to do what they can to discourage conduct that spreads the disease? A White House source has informed us that the administration is under great pressure to drop restrictions that prevent AIDS patients from entering the United States. “Fortunately,” he said—for he does not sympathize—”the restrictions are based on an act of Congress, and I can’t picture Congress going on public record as voting to change them.” Meanwhile the administration has created a ten-day visa that can be granted without inquiry into an applicant’s HIV status—a small but definite concession to those who feel that AIDS should not disqualify a person from an entry visa. At the same time, visa applicants who have ever had tuberculosis—an infectious but curable disease—are still subject to restrictions. The argument with respect to AIDS is that admission of AIDS patients and HIV carriers is not a menace to public health, inasmuch as the virus cannot be transmitted by casual contact. However, in view of the fact that according to the most recent statistics, 85.4 percent of present AIDS victims are either male homosexuals or IV-drug users, or both, it is apparent that they have engaged in “high risk behavior” in the past, and there is no assurance that they would abstain while in the United States. The pressure on government to admit AIDS patients seems to be out of harmony with public health policy in other areas.
Another federal example: in an unusual “emergency hearing” Palm Sunday morning, federal judge Carl Rubin blocked the efforts of Hamilton County and Cincinnati authorities to halt the Contemporary Arts Center from exhibiting allegedly obscene photos by Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in March of 1989. Federal judges do not, however, step in to prevent the efforts of public authorities to halt the display of traditional Nativity scenes at Christmas. Apparently we are to be grateful that the Mapplethorpe exhibition is not blasphemous, as otherwise the judge might have ordered the city to provide free shuttle buses.
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