AIDS is, of course, a health problem. But fear of the insidious and deadly disease has made it a political, civil-rights, education and social-policy problem as well, complicating discussions with a weird mix of sense and nonsense.
President Reagan added to the political controversy the other day when he proposed routine testing for the AIDS virus of federal prisoners, marriage-license applicants, patients in veterans' hospitals and would-be immigrants to the United States.
Part of his proposal makes at least some sense. Aliens seeking permanent residence here are already subject to screening for ''dangerous contagious disease.'' AIDS certainly fits that category.
But what is the purpose of testing marriage-license applicants? It's one thing to screen for such curable venereal diseases as gonorrhea or syphilis, as some states do. Those tests lead directly to treatment and reduce the spread of disease. But what would follow pre-marriage tests for AIDS that turned up positive? A refusal to issue the license? It would afford protection for the prospective spouse, but it would do nothing to halt the spread of AIDS -- unless the infected person decided on his (or her) own to practice celibacy or ''safe sex.''
But if the objective is to let carriers of the disease know that they are carriers, why wait for the marriage-license application? Logic would require that every member of an at-risk group -- including anyone who is sexually active -- be tested. Even if we had the facilities for testing on that scale, we would run smack into a civil-rights problem. Wouldn't employers who already screen for other diseases immediately make an AIDS ''clearance'' a condition of employment?
And what of insurance companies? If it is lawful for insurers to put cigarette smokers in a high-premium risk category, or to refuse to extend group coverage to those known to have life-threatening diseases, isn't it logical to permit them to refuse to insure any carrier of the AIDS virus?
But testing isn't the only problem. Take AIDS education. How much sense does it make to teach elementary-school children the techniques of ''safe sex,'' or to instruct drug addicts in the rudiments of ''safe'' drug abuse? Do we furnish the former with condoms and the latter with sterile needles?
To begin with, the available evidence suggests that schoolchildren are not a high-risk group. Drug abusers are, but to what extent is education the answer? Do we really suppose that there are significant numbers of drug abusers who are either ignorant of the risks of needle sharing or too poor to afford their own syringes?
There are those who believe it is dangerously inconsistent for high schools to teach sexual abstinence while providing contraceptive devices. Is it less consistent for one arm of government to arrest addicts for drug abuse or even for possessing drug paraphernalia while another government agency provides them with drug-abuse instructions and clean needles? Or for prison authorities to try to enforce rules against homosexual activity among inmates while furnishing them free condoms for the purpose of homosexual activity?
And what should be done with prisoners who test positive for the AIDS virus? Should they be segregated from the rest of the prison population?
Some of the proposals we hear are, I suspect, less reflective of any real hope that they will work than of our fear of a deadly disease for which we have no inoculation and no cure.
Oh, well, maybe the endless and illogical arguments over testing and education will at least give us something to do while we wait for medical science to save us.