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Government (In)Action

The United States government remained largely silent in the face of the AIDS crisis. Elected leaders avoided the issue. Funding requests for research and patient care went unfulfilled. Fear and misinformation permeated communications. Officials blamed and stigmatized people with AIDS. Change came slowly to those with responsibility. Finally, ten years into the epidemic, Congress passed comprehensive legislation to improve the care of low-income and underinsured people with AIDS.

  • Gary Bauer looking off to the right of the image, in front of a white building.

    Gary Bauer, assistant to the president for policy development, May 1, 1987

    Courtesy Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

    Gary Bauer, a senior policy advisor to the president, advocated that all federally funded HIV/AIDS prevention material “encourage responsible sexual behavior—based on fidelity, commitment, and maturity, placing sexuality within the context of marriage.” Bauer led President Regan’s administration in its embrace of a values-driven response to the AIDS epidemic, promoting strategies unavailable to those most at risk.

    What were Gary Bauer’s arguments against safe sex and condom education?
    (PDF | Transcription)

  • President Ronald Reagan (right) and Dr. C. Everett Koop (left* shaking hands.

    President Ronald Reagan (right) and Dr. C. Everett Koop at the White House, circa 1983

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    President Ronald Reagan took five years to publicly address the epidemic. At the end of 1985, he asked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to write a “special report on AIDS.”

  • Two pages of an article, with an image of a condom and open condom wrapper on the right page.

    Excerpt from The Surgeon General’s Report on AIDS, 1986

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    As the “nation’s doctor,” Surgeon General Koop spearheaded a position on care, treatment, and prevention that recommended the use of condoms and “fighting a disease, not people.” This position was contrary to that of many high-ranking officials and caused uproar among the president’s advisors.

    Want to know more about the report? View one of the resources below:

  • Ryan White on phone at a desk, his mother is sitting next to him.

    Indiana teenager Ryan White “attends” school via telephone from his home, with his mother, August 26, 1985

    Courtesy David Boe/Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/Associated Press

    When thirteen-year-old hemophiliac Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, he was barred from attending middle school in his Indiana hometown. Garnering equal parts sympathy and hatred from the public, White ultimately became the palatable face of AIDS. He refused, however, to be seen as more deserving of tolerance and demanded care for all people with AIDS. White died at age eighteen in 1990. Later that year, the federal government introduced comprehensive AIDS legislation named in his honor.

  • President Obama in center at desk with Presidential Seal signing a document. He is surrounded by a group of 11 individuals.

    President Obama, with Jeanne White Ginder (directly right of desk) and other officials, signs the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009

    Courtesy AP/Gerald Herbert

    On October 30, 2009, Barack Obama became the third president to extend the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act of 1990. Originally signed by George H. W. Bush, the act sought to improve the care of low-income and underinsured people with AIDS, policies that were all but impossible in the 1980s.