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Helms' expedient compassion

Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina is nothing if not ignorant and bigoted. His latest political doublespeak is calling for cuts in federal funding for AIDS victims _ because it is their "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct" that is responsible for their own suffering. You will not find compassion in the senator's head or heart.

The conservative Republican is a longtime foe of rights for homosexuals, the largest group of Americans afflicted with HIV, which causes AIDS. But Helms shrugs off the fact that the epidemic, which he says is "transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts," is not restricted to gays. This disease does not discriminate, and according to the Center for Disease Control, AIDS now is the leading cause of death among men and women ages 25 to 44.

Helms' asinine logic behind reducing AIDS spending comes as Congress considers reauthorizing the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990, the five-year federal program for the care and treatment of people with AIDS. Despite broad bipartisan support in each house of Congress, the senator's efforts could jeopardize the program, which expires in September.

President Clinton urged Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to reauthorize the CARE act without delay.

"At a time when AIDS is the leading cause of death of young adults, we cannot let reauthorization of the CARE Act be held up by divisive arguments about how people contracted HIV," the president wrote. "Now is not the time to retreat in our national response to this terrible disease."

Unfortunately, Helms' groundless claims may be prompting other politicians to second-guess federally funded AIDS research and treatment. Dole is one of the act's 61 Senate sponsors, but Gingrich wants to allot government money to fight AIDS and other diseases based on where scientists say medical advances are most likely to be made, a prediction that is at best difficult. Gingrich shouldn't need a scientific panel to tell him that AIDS funding is crucial. The number of AIDS victims dying at an alarming rate, an average of 109 a day, according to Clinton, should be sufficient proof of the need to find a cure for AIDS _ as quickly as possible.

Helms' paper-thin objections should not deter the government from helping the sick, regardless of how they became ill. Because Helms hails from tobacco-growing North Carolina, he should realize that blaming people's behavior for their afflictions doesn't hold water.

"He seems to want to blame people with AIDS for being sick," says the mother of Ryan White, a boy who died in April 1990 after contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion.

"I wonder if he feels the same about Americans dying of cancer because they smoke?"