For the first time in recent memory, parents in the United States are being asked to come to grips with a horrifying medical dilemma -- whether to allow healthy children to mix with children infected with a new and deadly disease, AIDS.
In affected classrooms around the country, parental response has been strong and unequivocal. The vote has been to keep AIDS children out of the schools. Parental consensus has come down on the side of caution and conservative epidemiological practice.
Astonishingly, parental opposition to allowing AIDS children to attend classes has created a maelstrom of criticism from civil libertarians, from AIDS-risk groups, and, perhaps, less astonishingly, from the parents of AIDS children.
As a parent, my first mandate is to protect my children. It is clear that this protection extends not just to issues involving safety in the home, in the car and on the streets, but also to an increasing array of threats that derive from the nature of the society in which we live. The criteria by which parents must judge safety for a child are absolute -- there is no risk, no matter how low or how problematic the degree -- that would warrant a casual approach.
No parent would knowingly allow a child into an automobile or a playground if there were even a suspicion of danger. (And, in these situations, whatever risk might be involved might not be deadly). But AIDS victims, their lawyers and their lobbyists, are asking that parents submit their children to an experiment with potentially fatal consequences.
The medical experts have termed the risk of contagion from AIDS in the classroom "minimal." As a parent, I find "minimal" risk unacceptable. And, "minimal" risk where AIDS is concerned is no low-stakes poker game.
It is conceivable to me that there is a question of stigmatization being raised by advocates of AIDS children. Surely, it is clear that there is no intent to stigmatize victims of this disease. Parents are simply trying desperately to help isolate a virulent and relentless virus and to keep it from increasing its hold on our population. As Washington psychiatrist and author Richard Restak, has pointed out, arguing on behalf of "nondiscriminatory" measures for AIDS victims is arguing on behalf of the AIDS virus.
And, as painful progress is made in AIDS research, it has become increasingly apparent that this virus is no simple plague. Our best medical detectives -- as well as those in a dizzying array of foreign countries -- remain perplexed. With each new advance, more questions are raised. And, the AIDS virus continues to elude vaccine- makers and infectious disease therapists.
There has been little cause for complacency within the medical establishment. And the little that is know of the AIDS virus suggests that the limits of its contagion and of its latency are not yet known or understood.
As parents, we grieve for the children who have fallen prey to this devastating scourge. But we would fail our own children if we accepted the insufficient reassurances that medical experts have yet been able to provide. Surely, we owe our own youngsters and ourselves a far greater measure of diligence.