"Aids Heresy" and Free Speech

A dispute that exploded in mid-January shows some deadly questions about health and free speech facing us. Two organizations, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and ACT UP Hollywood, have locked horns over ACT UP's position that HIV itself does not cause AIDS. Claiming that the group's planned conference "would prove injurious to the community", the Center cancelled their contract with ACT UP for use of Center space. ACT UP is alleging censorship, and suing the Center.Censorship of dissenting views on AIDS is nothing new. Dissent first boiled up in the late 1980s, around nagging unanswered questions that met with heated denial. In 1991 a prestigious international group of scientists demanded auditing of CDC statistics, and disinterested research on the questions. Their open letter was rejected by "peer review" publications like Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, Nature. Some dissenters, like Peter Duesberg and ACT UP, believe that AIDS is caused by drugs and toxic substances. Others, like ABC News medical reporter Nicholas Regush, point to new information suggesting that another virus (possibly HHV6) may be the actual killer in a growing worldwide epidemic.Columnist Regush, who has gotten hate mail and death threats for discussing the subject, recently commented on the fierce efforts to silence him. He said: "Beware the scientist who believes that mainstream research thinking on any public health issue is equivalent to truth ... This is a person who has become what I would call a propagandist and should not be trusted. This is a person who probably does not sufficiently understand the history of science and how views are constantly changing to correct errors and fill information gaps."In short, dissent hasn't gone away -- it has gained ground. Official positioning of the CDC, medical establishment and law enforcement (many new state and federal laws now criminalize HIV+ people in various ways) is under intensified fire. So far, the news blackout has been so successful that many Americans are not even aware that dissent exists.Last year the Florida HIV/AIDS Prevention Program coordinator, Mark Pierpont, resigned from his job in a crisis of conscience. Pierpont wrote to his superiors: "Unfortunately, only one side of the scientific data has been made readily available to the public ... Aided by a willing media, the Public Health Service has all but silenced contrary scientific opinions and thus denied the people their fundamental right to informed consent. I hereby withdraw my participation from what may one day be seen as the greatest violation of the principle of informed consent in the history of Public Health."Today, as a few mainstream media -- from ABC News to Salon -- start airing the issues, many still fear that dissent will lead to lives being lost. They fear a loss of respect for government policy, and a loss of confidence in existing treatments and drugs, thus contributing to higher rates of HIV infection and AIDS death. Those who feel censorship is justified are missing the point: if new information does prove the CDC wrong, then indeed there will be a colossal loss of confidence in the government. And this is the government that already got caught lying to us about other health controversies (Agent Orange, anthrax vaccines, etc.).The biggest problem with AIDS censorship is this: defending the status quo has risen to an almost religious intensity ... and "religion" is often intolerant of questioning. People speak of AIDS doctrine, AIDS belief systems, AIDS heresy. Even some gay health activists fling the word "heretic" with all the fervor of medieval inquisitors lighting faggots under the feet of witches.This fervor is not surprising, since conservative America embraced the official definition of AIDS with such a sweeping moral absolutism. To right-wingers AIDS was a godsent proof that "American has abandoned God and morality." It gave them the perfect reason to demand that all citizens limit themselves to sex in heterosexual marriage. Unfortunately even some liberals have developed their own brand of fiery absolutism about AIDS, and resist new information as if they are defending the faith.The aim of "burning AIDS heretics at the stake" is to keep the American people fixed safely on a set of "Commandments" on testing, diagnosis, treatment, insurance, behaviour, etc. that is now been carved in stone. With AIDS officially on record only two decades, a whole host of legal, penal and social parameters were bricked into place in every aspect of American life before the jury was even in on research.This means that major breakthroughs will jar our country like an earthquake, shaking everything from employment to school-district policy. While writing this column, I happened to be talking to an educator who administers a program in one of the country's largest school districts. The program includes getting safer-sex information to hundreds of thousands of K-12 students and their families. She had never heard of the growing debate about the nature of AIDS -- yet sooner or later, the issue will erupt in her own district.Today most media must still figure out how they will cover a story that is rapidly becoming unavoidable, as ABC News and other mainstream entities move AIDS dissent into the headlines. Regush's new book "The Virus Within: A Coming Epidemic", forthcoming from Dutton, is getting intense buzz. Probably some editors and publishers are wondering quietly if they're already behind the curve, and how they can begin exploring the issue in a courageous and responsible way.The media's willingness to inform people about late-breaking AIDS news will be a litmus test of free speech in medicine, nonprofit fundraising, law enforcement, public-health policy. As often in world history, yesterday's "heretics" turn out to have been today's visionaries.As one of the plaintiffs against the Justice Dept. on Internet censorship, I have to side with free speech. Personally I don't agree with ACT UP on what really causes AIDS, but they do have a right to be heard. Anyone who suppresses legitimate debate and new health information, who stands in the way of "informed consent," is not acting in our best interests. Indeed, if it's true that we have more to learn about AIDS, then (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) lives will be saved by giving all the people all of the facts.Many Americans do have the courage and intelligence to look at conflicting information about other medical controversies -- from the right dieting to the right way to fight the common cold. That is their right -- to make up their own minds. Surely the media can trust their millions of readers and viewers to do the same with AIDS.Patricia Nell Warren, author of The Front Runner, also writes commentary for many gay and mainstream publications. Her commentaries are archived at wildcatpress.com.

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