It's no longer the "gay plague" as the Rev. Jerry Falwell once called it. The number of victims has doubled every year. Those who once agreed with the leader of the Moral Majority that AIDS was God's punishment of homosexuals for their "perverted life style" have seen the children who are victims, and not even the most vociferous moralist can claim that they chose their fate.
Americans have turned in their complacency for something like panic. The fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome has leaped from the gay bathhouses to the high altars of the Episcopal Church and the macho precincts of a ward in Queens.
Episcopal clergymen, meeting in California, agonized over the continuation of the common communion cup for fear of infection. Parents of 12,000 public school pupils in Queens kept their children at home to protest the admission of an AIDS victim to the second grade of a District 27 school.
Medical science has not caught up with the galloping increase in the spread of the deadly virus -- there have been 13,000 confirmed cases since 1979. Homosexuals complain bitterly that the delay in funding and research is a side-effect of the fear and loathing of their kind that is prevalent in our society. The revelation that Rock Hudson has AIDS was to them a breakthrough that would change the climate surrounding the killer virus -- Americans have a great tenderness for their celebrities and a compassion for their afflictions.
It is true that his plight made it suddenly permissible for the staging of an AIDS fund-raiser, but it has intensified the outrage in some quarters over what they call "a behaviorally induced disease."
But the children cannot be suspected of the kind of activity through which AIDS is most commonly transmitted, anal sex and the use of dirty needles by drug abusers. The children are mostly hemophiliacs who have contracted AIDS from contaminated blood products.
No one imagines that they have brought the wrath of God on themselves.
The discussion now is focused on what society owes them. Do they have the right to go to public school, the right to mingle with their peers, the right not to be identified as victims and potential carriers of AIDS?
Regularly on television we see the bright face of 13-year-old Ryan White, who wishes to study computer science but who has been banned from the schools of Kokomo, Ind. He has to take his lessons by telephone, and he says of this manner of instruction, "It stinks."
In Swansea, Mass., School Superintendent John E. McCarthy, with the approval of the community, has allowed a 12-year-old boy with hemophilia and AIDS to attend classes at the Joseph Case Junior High School.
The principal's statement, "I get kind of lost when people say it takes courage to do the right thing," should probably be graven on the halls of Congress. It has done nothing, however, to alleviate the terror spreading among parents elsewhere, who feel that the health of their children takes precedence over the compassion due one doomed child.
Politicians who love to go on talk shows hate to be asked point-blank, as two were on David Brinkley's Sunday morning program, if they would send their children to school with known AIDS victims. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) mumbled about its being a matter for local school boards. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said that if the AIDS child were Ryan White, it would be all right.
Hatch said the victim should be identified so that the other children could take defensive measures. But if identified, the child is almost certain to be shunned, and the main purpose of sending him to school, association with other children, is canceled.
At a recent public health parley, one doctor noted that parents who are insisting on knowing the identity of children with AIDS have not made the same demand of their teachers.
The reassurance by the Centers for Disease Control, issued in August, has not stopped the spread of fear. Medical experts said evidence shows that "casual, person-to-person contact, as would occur among schoolchildren, appears to pose no risk."
What parents are demanding, said one Health and Human Services official who did not wish to be named, is "absolute certainty, which we cannot provide. AIDS is not transmitted to normal, healthy people in normal, everyday activity. Ninety-five percent of the people who are exposed to AIDS do not contract it."
The issue of the children's rights is in court. Their plight suggests that maybe God's design was not retribution for gays but something infinitely more humane, like the curing of AIDS.