HIV Clueless

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

IN 1992, Mike Huckabee, then a candidate for U.S. Senate from Arkansas, urged the "isolation" of "carriers" of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. His exact words were: "If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague. . . . It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents."

Now, as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Huckabee said he might phrase it differently but otherwise stood by his 1992 statement. He explained in a Dec. 9 interview on Fox News that the comment was made at a time "when we didn't know as much as we do now about AIDS, we were acting more out of political correctness than we were about the normal public health protocols that we would have acted -- as we have recently, for example, with avian flu. . . . There was also the case of Kimberly Bergalis, who testified before Congress in 1991. She had contracted AIDS from her dentist."

Actually, in 1992, the year after basketball star Magic Johnson made the dramatic announcement that he was HIV-positive, it was already widely understood -- and widely publicized -- that HIV could not be spread by casual contact or even through close physical contact short of unprotected homosexual or heterosexual sex. It was also widely understood that the virus could be spread through blood transfusions or intravenous drug use involving needles shared with an infected person. There was nothing "politically correct" about this.

Mr. Huckabee's proposal would have required a strong, and scary, element of coercion: Who would voluntarily be tested knowing that the price of a positive result could be "isolation" from society? Small wonder that, at the time, Mr. Huckabee's impulse to segregate victims of HIV from the general population was shared only by those on the fringes of the American right and, ironically, in Cuba, where Fidel Castro's dictatorship was pursuing a policy of mandatory testing and quarantine.

Though trumpeted by some conservatives as an example of the disease's imminent breakout into the ranks of "innocent" middle-class Americans, the Bergalis case, involving an HIV-positive dentist in Florida, proved a tragic aberration. Mr. Huckabee's invocation of this cause celebre simply underscores the panicky medical illiteracy of his 1992 view. Nor can his view on AIDS be separated from Mr. Huckabee's animus toward homosexuality, which at the time he called "an aberrant, unnatural and sinful lifestyle." In 1992, Mr. Huckabee also opposed increasing federal support for AIDS research, sarcastically suggesting that "multimillionaire celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna" pay for it.

Mr. Huckabee has given up that mean-spirited approach to research and now advocates ample federal funding. A spokeswoman told us last night that his views have evolved, though she didn't say how, and that Mr. Huckabee "is trying to walk the line between compassion and honesty." He endorsed the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling striking down state anti-sodomy laws. But in refusing to "recant," as he put it to Fox News, his 1992 views on AIDS and on homosexuality as a "lifestyle," he fails to lay to rest legitimate doubts about his objectivity and fairmindedness when it comes to the rights and interests of gays and lesbians, and the public health concerns of everyone.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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