PHILADELPHIA — President Reagan, gingerly entering the national debate about AIDS, today defended his Administration's efforts in fighting the fatal disease and said, "We've thrown everything we have into it," although his Administration's spending requests have been below Congress' appropriations.
"I'm convinced we'll find a cure for AIDS," Reagan told a medical audience, declaring the disease "public health enemy No. 1."
And, speaking publicly on the subject for the second time in two days, the President indicated that he favored emphasizing sexual abstinence and monogamous relationships to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Have Answer Ready
"Should you just say no?" the President was asked as he left the White House to speak to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
"That's a pretty good answer," he replied.
The subject of AIDS has been a particularly sensitive subject within the Administration--and one with which the President has dealt in public only rarely.
But today, in an address to the Philadelphia group, a 200-year-old organization made up of 2,100 elected fellows, the President spent several minutes outlining his Administration's efforts and citing "unprecedented progress against a major virus."
Ounce of Prevention
But, he said, "All the vaccines and medications in the world won't change one basic truth--that prevention is better than cure and that's particularly true of AIDS, for which right now there is no cure.
"This is where education comes in," he said, citing efforts by the Public Health Service. "The federal role must be to give educators accurate information about the disease. How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not government.
"But let's be honest with ourselves. AIDS information cannot be what some call 'value neutral.' After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don't medicine and morality teach the same lessons?"
A White House official, asked about this remark, said the President meant that "medical advice would tell you the clearest way to avoid AIDS and spreading AIDS is to abstain, and that coincides with what the moral advice would be: not to practice sex out of monogamous marriages."
Thus Reagan appeared to be siding with Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who favors an education program founded on preaching abstinence from sexual activity. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, in stressing the role of education, has emphasized the importance of condoms in preventing the spread of the AIDS virus through sex.
Asked about this dispute, Reagan told reporters "that particular subject should be taught in connection with values, not simply taught as a physical, mechanical process."
He said he did not quarrel with the surgeon general, but added: "Abstinence has been lacking in much of the education. No kind of values of right and wrong are being taught in the educational process."
In this country, AIDS has primarily afflicted homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. As of Monday, a total of 33,482 Americans had contracted AIDS, of whom 19,394 had died.