Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the American Foundation for AIDS Research Awards Dinner

May 31, 1987

The President. Dr. Silverman, Elizabeth, Don Ross, award winners, ladies and gentlemen, I hope Elizabeth won't mind, but some years ago when I was doing a television show, "General Electric Theater," part of my work required visiting the General Electric plants, 139 of them, and meeting all the employees.

And knowing better than to have a canned speech for them, I would go and suggest that they might ask questions. And every place I went, the first question was "Is Elizabeth Taylor really that pretty?" [Laughter] And being the soul of honesty, I would say, "You bet." [Applause]

But you know, fundraisers always remind me of one of my favorite but most well-worn stories. I've been telling it for years, so if you've heard it, please indulge me. A man had just been elected chairman of his community's annual charity drive. And he went over all the records, and he noticed something about one individual in town, a very wealthy man. And so, he paid a call on him, introduced himself as to what he was doing, and he said, "Our records show that you have never contributed anything to our charity." And the man said, "Well, do your records show that I also have a brother who, as the result of a disabling accident, is permanently disabled and cannot provide for himself?. Do your records show that I have an invalid mother and a widowed sister with several small children and no father to support them?" And the chairman, a little abashed and embarrassed, said, "Well, no, our records don't show that." The man said, "Well, I don't give anything to them. Why should I give something to you?" [Laughter]

Well, I do want to thank each of you for giving to the fight against AIDS. And I want to thank the American Foundation for AIDS Research and our award recipients for their contributions, as well. I'm especially pleased a member of the administration is one of tonight's recipients. Dr. [C. Everett] Koop is what every Surgeon General should be. He's an honest man, a good doctor, and an advocate for the public health. I also want to thank other doctors and researchers who aren't here tonight. Those individuals showed genuine courage in the early days of the disease when we didn't know how AIDS was spreading its death. They took personal risks for medical knowledge and for their patients' well-being, and that deserves our gratitude and recognition.

I want to talk tonight about the disease that has brought us all together. It has been talked about, and I'm going to continue. The poet W.H. Auden said that true men of action in our times are not the politicians and statesmen but the scientists. I believe that's especially true when it comes to the AIDS epidemic. Those of us in government can educate our citizens about the dangers. We can encourage safe behavior. We can test to determine how widespread the virus is. We can do any number of things. But only medical science can ever truly defeat AIDS. We've made remarkable progress, as you've heard, already. To think we didn't even know we had a disease until June of 1981, when five cases appeared in California. The AIDS virus itself was discovered in 1984. The blood test became available in 1985. A treatment drug, AZT, has been brought to market in record time, and others are coming. Work on a vaccine is now underway in many laboratories, as you've been told.

In addition to all the private and corporate research underway here at home and around the world, this fiscal year the Federal Government plans to spend $317 million on AIDS research and $766 million overall. Next year we intend to spend 30 percent more on research: $413 million out of $1 billion overall. Spending on AIDS has been one of the fastest growing parts of the budget, and, ladies and gentlemen, it deserves to be. We're also tearing down the regulatory barriers so as to move AIDS from the pharmaceutical laboratory to the marketplace as quickly as possible. It makes no sense, and in fact it's cruel, to keep the hope of new drugs from dying patients. And I don't blame those who are out marching and protesting to get AIDS drugs released before the I's were—or the T's were crossed and the I's were dotted. I sympathize with them, and we'll supply help and hope as quickly as we can.

Science is clearly capable of breathtaking advances, but it's not capable of miracles. Because of AIDS long incubation period, it'll take years to know if a vaccine works. These tests require time, and this is a problem money cannot overcome. We will not have a vaccine on the market until the mid-to late 1990's, at best. Since we don't have a cure for the disease and we don't have a vaccine against it, the question is how do we deal with it in the meantime. How do we protect the citizens of this nation, and where do we start? For one thing, it's absolutely essential that the American people understand the nature and the extent of the AIDS problem. And it's important that Federal and State Governments do the same.

I recently announced my intention to create a national commission on AIDS because of the consequences of this disease on our society. We need some comprehensive answers. What can we do to defend Americans not infected with the virus? How can we best care for those who are ill and dying? How do we deal with a disease that may swamp our health care system? The commission will help crystallize America's best ideas on how to deal with the AIDS crisis. We know some things already: the cold statistics. But I'm not going to read you gruesome facts on how many thousands have died or most certainly will die. I'm not going to break down the numbers and categories of those we've lost, because I don't want Americans to think AIDS simply affects only certain groups. AIDS affects all of us.

What our citizens must know is this: America faces a disease that is fatal and spreading. And this calls for urgency, not panic. It calls for compassion, not blame. And it calls for understanding, not ignorance. It's also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness. Final judgment is up to God; our part is to ease the suffering and to find a cure. This is a battle against disease, not against our fellow Americans. We mustn't allow those with the AIDS virus to suffer discrimination. I agree with Secretary of Education Bennett: We must firmly oppose discrimination against those who have AIDS. We must prevent the persecution, through ignorance or malice, of our fellow citizens.

As dangerous and deadly as AIDS is, many of the fears surrounding it are unfounded. These fears are based on ignorance. I was told of a newspaper photo of a baby in a hospital crib with a sign that said, "AIDS—Do Not Touch." Fortunately, that photo was taken several years ago, and we now know there's no basis for this kind of fear. But similar incidents are still happening elsewhere in this country. I read of one man with AIDS who returned to work to find anonymous notes on his desk with such messages as, "Don't use our water fountain." I was told of a situation in Florida where 3 young brothers—ages 10, 9, and 7—were all hemophiliacs carrying the AIDS virus. The pastor asked the entire family not to come back to their church. Ladies and gentlemen, this is old-fashioned fear, and it has no place in the "home of the brave."

The Public Health Service has stated that there's no medical reason for barring a person with the virus from any routine school or work activity. There's no reason for those who carry the AIDS virus to wear a scarlet A. AIDS is not a casually contagious disease. We're still learning about how AIDS is transmitted, but experts tell us you don't get it from telephones or swimming pools or drinking fountains. You don't get it from shaking hands or sitting on a bus or anywhere else, for that matter. And most important, you don't get AIDS by donating blood. Education is critical to clearing up the fears. Education is also crucial to stopping the transmission of the disease. Since we don't yet have a cure or a vaccine, the only thing that can halt the spread of AIDS right now is a change in the behavior of those Americans who are at risk.

As I've said before, the Federal role is to provide scientific, factual information. Corporations can help get the information out, so can community and religious groups, and of course so can the schools, with guidance from the parents and with the commitment, I hope, that AIDS education or any aspect of sex education will not be value-neutral. A dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London once said: "The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts, but of values." Well, that's not too far off. Education is knowing how to adapt, to grow, to understand ourselves and the world around us. And values are how we guide ourselves through the decisions of life. How we behave sexually is one of those decisions. As Surgeon General Koop has pointed out, if children are taught their own worth, we can expect them to treat themselves and others with greater respect. And wherever you have self-respect and mutual respect, you don't have drug abuse and sexual promiscuity, which of course are the two major causes of AIDS. Nancy, too, has found from her work that self-esteem is the best defense against drug abuse.

Now, we know there will be those who will go right ahead. So, yes, after there is a moral base, then you can discuss preventives and other scientific measures. And there's another aspect of teaching values that needs to be mentioned here. As individuals, we have a moral obligation not to endanger others, and that can mean endangering others with a gun, with a car, or with a virus. If a person has reason to believe that he or she may be a carrier, that person has a moral duty to be tested for AIDS; human decency requires it. And the reason is very simple: Innocent people are being infected by this virus, and some of them are going to acquire AIDS and die.

Let me tell you a story about innocent, unknowing people. A doctor in a rural county in Kentucky treated a woman who caught the AIDS virus from her husband, who was an IV-drug user. They later got divorced, neither knowing that they were infected. They remarried other people, and now one of them has already transmitted the disease to her new husband. Just as most individuals don't know they carry the virus, no one knows to what extent the virus has infected our entire society. AIDS is surreptitiously spreading throughout our population, and yet we have no accurate measure of its scope. It's time we knew exactly what we were facing, and that's why I support some routine testing.

I've asked the Department of Health and Human Services to determine as soon as possible the extent to which the AIDS virus has penetrated our society and to predict its future dimensions. I've also asked HHS to add the AIDS virus to the list of contagious diseases for which immigrants and aliens seeking permanent residence in the United States can be denied entry.

Audience members. Boo-oo-o!

The President. They are presently denied entry for other contagious diseases. I've asked the Department of Justice to plan for testing all Federal prisoners, as looking into ways to protect uninfected inmates and their families. In addition, I've asked for a review of other Federal responsibilities, such as veterans hospitals, to see if testing might be appropriate in those areas. This is in addition to the testing already underway in our military and foreign service.

Audience members. No! No!

The President. Now let me turn to what the States can do. Some are already at work. While recognizing the individual's choice, I encourage States to offer routine testing for those who seek marriage licenses and for those who visit sexually transmitted disease or drug abuse clinics. And I encourage States to require routine testing in State and local prisons. Not only will testing give us more information on which to make decisions, but in the case of marriage licenses, it might prevent at least some babies from being born with AIDS. And anyone who knows how viciously AIDS attacks the body cannot object to this humane consideration. I should think that everyone getting married would want to be tested.

You know, it's been said that when the night is darkest, we see the stars. And there have been some shining moments throughout this horrible AIDS epidemic. I'm talking about all those volunteers across the country who've ministered to the sick and the helpless. For example, last year about 450 volunteers from the Shanti Project provided 130,000 hours of emotional and practical support for 87 percent of San Francisco's AIDS patients. That kind of compassion has been duplicated all over the country, and it symbolizes the best tradition of caring. And I encourage Americans to follow that example and volunteer to help their fellow citizens who have AIDS.

In closing, let me read to you something I saw in the paper that also embodies the American spirit. It's something that a young man with AIDS recently said. He said: "While I do accept death, I think the fight for life is important, and I'm going to fight the disease with every breath I have." Ladies and gentlemen, so must we. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 8:16 p.m. at the Potomac Restaurant. In his opening remarks, he referred to Dr. Mervyn Silverman, president of the American Foundation for AIDS Research; Elizabeth Taylor; and Donald Ross, chairman of the board of New York Life Insurance Co.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the American Foundation for AIDS Research Awards Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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