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The Times Poll : 42% Would Limit Civil Rights in AIDS Battle

July 31, 1987|ROBERT STEINBROOK | Times Medical Writer

Many Americans are prepared to accept very strong measures to battle the mounting AIDS epidemic, and 42% believe that some civil liberties must be suspended in the effort, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.

When asked "do you think some civil liberties must be suspended in the war on AIDS," 42% of respondents in the nationwide poll said yes, 38% said no, and 19% were not sure.

Also, 68% said they would favor criminal sanctions against people with AIDS who remain sexually active, and 84% approved making it a crime for people in AIDS high-risk groups to donate blood. Both findings represent significant increases since the same questions were asked by The Times Poll in December, 1985, when the affirmative figures were 51% and 77%, respectively.

The national survey of 2,095 people, conducted July 24 to 28, was designed to assess public perceptions of how to control the AIDS epidemic and to see if these had changed since the 1985 poll.

The new survey showed that about half of Americans would tolerate mandatory testing for people with a high risk of acquiring AIDS and adding AIDS to the list of infectious diseases that require quarantine.

In addition, the percentage of respondents who favor a tattoo for people who test positive for the AIDS virus, a proposal once ad vanced by conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., has nearly doubled--from 15% to 29%--since the last poll.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed that AIDS is mainly a question of community health, not civil rights.

"There has been a hardening of public attitudes on AIDS," said I. A. Lewis, the director of The Times Poll. "It is almost as if many Americans think of civil liberties as a luxury when it comes to protecting the public health."

Such steps as widespread mandatory AIDS testing, quarantine and tattoos for AIDS virus carriers would go far beyond the voluntary measures favored by leading public health officials throughout the world as the best means to control the inevitably fatal disease.

These officials, such as U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Dr. Jonathan Mann of the World Health Organization, have stressed that individuals must take a major responsibility for protecting themselves against the sexually transmitted and blood-borne AIDS virus. They have also argued that AIDS virus carriers and AIDS patients should not be excluded from society or discriminated against.

However, most Americans agreed with the majority of AIDS experts that widespread, mandatory testing of people for the AIDS virus is a less effective measure against the disease than increased public education and research.

Steps to Fight Epidemic

When asked to choose among education, testing and research as the single most worthwhile step "that should be taken at the present time to fight the AIDS epidemic," 46% of the respondents favored more education, 42% more research, and only 6% more testing.

When asked to choose the "least productive" step, 54% said more testing, 24% more education and 12% more research.

Respondents were sharply divided over whether such testing should be mandatory; 49% supported mandatory testing and 47% voluntary testing.

While they may not classify widespread testing as a particularly effective deterrent to AIDS, however, Americans are nonetheless tolerant to the notion of more testing.

When asked "which if any of the following groups of people do you think it would be most useful to test for the presence of the the AIDS virus?" 29% of those interviewed said "all citizens," 16% "drug abusers," 16% "known homosexuals," and 14% prostitutes.

Such testing does not detect the AIDS virus particles themselves. Rather, the blood tests identify proteins called AIDS antibodies, which are produced by the body's immune system in response to infection with the virus. While those who test positive are considered infected with the virus and capable of transmitting it to others, they may or may not actually develop AIDS.

About 70% of the respondents said that public health officials should be allowed to use AIDS antibodies blood tests to trace the sexual partners of AIDS virus carriers and that information about AIDS virus carriers should be shared with their past and present sexual partners. About 70% said health care professionals should be informed about people who had tested positive for AIDS antibodies with whom they might come in contact.

'How Low on the Scale'

Poll director Lewis interpreted these results as showing "how low on the scale the civil rights consideration really is." Lewis added: "The American people seem to be saying they don't think greatly expanded testing will do much good, but go ahead if you want to."

In a related finding, there was a sharp upsurge in support for increased federal spending on AIDS education and research, contrasted to the 1985 Times Poll. Lewis said this upsurge also reflects a more general trend in the last year toward increased public acceptance of spending on government services.

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