WASHINGTON — Federal health officials have proposed relaxing restrictions on the sexual content of government-funded AIDS educational materials, but they insisted Saturday that the new rules would not give groups the "license to do things that are wildly explicit."
The Centers for Disease Control, which awards grants to community organizations to develop AIDS educational programs, has served notice that it intends to remove the current prohibition against materials that "promote or encourage" intravenous drug use or sexual activity.
Because intravenous drug use and sexual intercourse--homosexual and heterosexual--are the primary means of transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus, AIDS groups and many public health officials believe that education efforts must address those subjects frankly to be effective.
CDC officials said legislation appropriating AIDS education funds for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 did not contain the restrictive language. As a result, they believe they are no longer subject to the restraints.
Even so, health officials made it clear they do not intend to support programs that would be considered offensive by most Americans.
"Our intent is to communicate effectively about the need to change behavior to ensure safety from HIV infection," said CDC Deputy Director Gary Noble, who is responsible for the agency's AIDS programs.
"However, this doesn't mean that CDC will use taxpayers' dollars to tell people how to do something that is offensive to the general community," Noble said in an interview. "This will not give groups the license to do things that are wildly explicit. The restriction has been removed--but it doesn't mean anything goes."
Despite those warnings, the government's action was praised by AIDS organizations.
"We applaud CDC's move toward meaningful, effective AIDS education," said Dan Bross, executive director of the AIDS Action Council, a national lobbying group representing more than 500 community-based AIDS service organizations around the country.
"By preventing direct language about sex, those restrictions have posed a tremendous burden on community-based AIDS groups trying to save lives," Bross said.
The new guidelines were outlined in a notice that was published in Friday's Federal Register. Those guidelines will take effect in February after a 30-day public comment period.
The restrictions on AIDS educational materials were imposed in 1987 with an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms had been angered by a comic book called "Safer Sex Comix" that depicted "safe sex" between two men. It was produced with private funds by the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York.
Helms insisted that federal funds should not be used to support similar materials or the organizations that produced them.
"This subject matter is so obscene, so revolting, it is difficult for me to stand here and talk about it," Helms said during the 1987 Senate floor debate on the subject. "I may throw up. This senator is not a goody-goody two-shoes. I've lived a long time . . . but every Christian ethic cries out for me to do something. I call a spade a spade, a perverted human being a perverted human being."
Neither Helms nor Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), the primary House opponent of explicit AIDS educational materials, could be reached Saturday for comment.
In 1988, the Gay Men's Health Crisis filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services seeking to overturn the restrictions. The advocacy group argued that the regulations impaired its ability to function effectively. The lawsuit is still pending.
The original Helms amendment, which was approved, was superseded several years later by a more moderate restriction sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).
The CDC's proposed new regulations would also soften standards affecting the makeup of the local review panels that monitor AIDS educational materials.
Under current rules, members of such panels must be drawn from "the general community," even if the materials are developed for a specific population. The new guidelines would permit "panels reviewing materials intended for racial and ethnic minority populations (to) be drawn predominantly from such racial and ethnic populations."
Panels reviewing materials targeted at gays, however, still must be composed primarily of members representing "the general community." Bross, of the AIDS Action Council, called this "a double standard which seems to be motivated by nothing more than homophobia."
"Gay people have done an excellent job educating their community about AIDS and can certainly be trusted to evaluate materials targeting their community," Bross added.