Hecklers Jeer Bowen Talk at AIDS Session
Reflecting a growing anger toward the Reagan Administration’s policies on AIDS, hecklers jeered, hissed and booed Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen Friday as he addressed the closing session of the third International Conference on AIDS.
The demonstrators, several hundred of whom also stood in protest during Bowen’s speech, began hissing when he referred to AIDS patients as “victims,” a term many of them find offensive, and each time he described the Administration’s response to the AIDS epidemic. The loudest shouts came when Bowen told conference participants that “the problems of AIDS” have “the President’s complete attention” and that “we fully support his leadership.”
President Reagan and Vice President George Bush were greeted with similar hostility earlier this week in response to the Administration’s new AIDS testing proposals.
Speaking to a fund-raising dinner sponsored by the American Foundation for AIDS Research last Sunday, Reagan was hissed when he declared his support for expanded “routine” testing for AIDS infection, particularly for marriage license applicants and those seeking treatment in drug abuse clinics and sexually transmitted disease clinics. Further, he said, he would seek mandatory testing for all immigrants, patients in veterans hospitals and federal prisoners.
Bush received a similar reception Monday when he defended the testing policies before the conference, saying it is the responsibility of political leaders to “decide among competing principles,” such as public health safety versus civil rights. Bush, referring to the boos, later remarked: “Who was that--some gay group out there?”
In another indication of how the AIDS crisis has taken on political overtones, more than 1,300 conference participants signed a resolution urging political leaders “to heed the counsel” of the medical, scientific, education and service communities in formulating AIDS policy.
“Concerns were expressed regarding the flurry of political policy statements and decisions emanating from Administration officials,” said Dr. Donald I. Abrams, assistant director of AIDS activities for San Francisco General Hospital, announcing the petition to a standing ovation. “Some run counter to current medical and scientific understanding.”
Bowen ignored the demonstrators until he had finished his prepared speech. Then, to applause, he added: “I really don’t object to your protesting my remarks. . . . I shall not turn my back on the problem. I shall not turn my back on AIDS or the people who have it. We’re going to see it through to the ultimate success, with the proper protection of civil rights and human dignity.”
Before Bowen spoke, flyers were circulated among the audience asking participants to stand during his speech to protest “the politics of AIDS as defined by the Reagan Administration and the U.S. Congress” that “shows ignorance and contempt for the collective wisdom of the world medical and scientific community.”
The flyers were signed with the initials LHM, believed to stand for the “Lavender Hill Mob,” a radical gay group that has sponsored several other demonstrations at public AIDS meetings. Several hundred in the crowd stood while Bowen spoke.
Bowen said later at a press conference that he believes “the President has been greatly misunderstood” and that when Reagan said routine testing “should be offered--that does not mean mandatory.”
When asked if he believes that the Administration is insensitive to gays, as typified by Bush’s impromptu comment, Bowen replied, “It ain’t so,” and added that “I’m sure the vice president wishes he could retract that remark.”
Used to Hecklers
Of the hecklers, Bowen said: “I was a governor for eight years--I’m used to it.”
The test has been extremely controversial in the two years since it was introduced to screen the nation’s blood supply. Many medical and public health officials, as well as gay and civil rights groups, have argued that testing without confidentiality of the results would lead to discrimination and that mandatory testing could drive “underground” the very persons who need to be reached.
Moreover, they have urged that all testing be accompanied by pre- and post-test counseling to explain the behaviors that transmit AIDS, as well as the interpretation of the results.
The test indicates only that a person has been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS, not that he or she will contract the deadly disease. However, an individual who tests positive is presumed to be infected and infectious to others.
Random Tests of 45,000
Meanwhile, federal health officials said the federally sponsored national study of AIDS infection requested by Reagan in his speech last Sunday will involve the anonymous testing of a random sample of 45,000 Americans reached through a “household, censuslike” plan.
Dr. James O. Mason, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control, said it is hoped that the study, expected to begin within six months, will determine the extent of AIDS infection in the United States.
Federal health officials have estimated that 1 to 2 million Americans are infected but the figures are based in part on estimates of homosexuals and intravenous drug users in the country. Officials have said that more precise information is needed to plan future strategy and to evaluate the effectiveness of AIDS education and information campaigns.
Mason said that the survey “will be blind, or anonymous,” and will involve about 45,000 persons who are a representative sample of the nation’s population, as well as an expanded sampling of persons belonging to known AIDS high-risk groups.