By almost any measure, one of the most important victories in the war on AIDS was the series of AIDS drug trials conducted in New York during the 1990s. Countless patients, many of them HIV-positive children, received a new lease on life from the experimental drugs. There was, however, one grievous side-effect: the trials infected the political far-left with a malicious strain of conspiracy theory. The result has been an ongoing campaign to discredit the trials as a sadistic, racist endeavor to poison or otherwise experiment on healthy minority children.
This malevolent campaign is predicated on the work of Liam Scheff, a self-described “very independent journalist” who won plaudits from the radical left for his attacks on George W. Bush during what he called the “stolen” 2000 presidential election. Arguably Scheff’s most notorious screed was a January 2004 article called “The House that AIDS Built,” which appeared on the website Indymedia.org. In that piece, Scheff alleged that doctors conducting the AIDS drug trials had “brutally experimented on foster children, most of them Black, Latino, or poor,” and had “poisoned them with toxic drugs, sometimes against their parents’ will and without even being certain that they were sick.” Scheff also claimed that the Incarnation Children’s Center, a charitable house run jointly by Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and the Archdiocese of New York, had in certain cases force-fed the children drugs “known to cause genetic mutation, organ failure, bone marrow death, bodily deformations, and fatal skin disorders.”
Unable to find a reputable publisher for his story, Scheff posted it on the Internet. The New York Times later noted:
“[The controversy stems] from a single account of abuse allegations—given by a single writer about people not identified by real names, backed up with no documentation as supporting proof, and put out on the Internet in early 2004 after the author was unable to get the story published anywhere else.”
There is, according to the Times, “little evidence that the trials were anything but a success.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, AIDS claimed the lives of hundreds of children, 50 percent of whom would die before their fifth birthday. As the Times reported:
"There were no AIDS drugs approved for children in those years. The first AIDS drug, AZT, was approved for adults in 1987. Babies were being abandoned in hospitals. According to Dr. William Borkowsky, a pediatrician at Bellevue Hospital Center, 'People were clamoring, begging for access to any drug,' but the available drugs had only been approved for adult testing, and many of the patients were foster children. Doctors therefore sought and obtained permission to 'include foster children in what they regarded as promising drug trials.'"
The Incarnation Children’s Center, a boarding home for HIV-infected foster children, was chosen as a trial site. As a direct result of the trials, by the year 2000, the number of children under 20 who died of AIDS in the city that year dropped to 13. All told, for 14 years, 90 percent of all HIV-infected children in the city, not just those in foster care, participated in the trials, according to estimates by the Child Welfare Administration. Fewer and fewer children became sick, and many of those in foster care were eventually adopted.
Despite the well-documented success of the trials, the demagogues in New York’s black community, desperate to divide the city among racial lines, have seized on Scheff’s indefensible assertions to attack whites. Consider, for instance, Omowale Clay, a leader of the so-called December 12th Movement, an organization that campaigns for slavery reparations. Claiming to have investigated the charges against the Incarnation Center and Columbia Presbyterian, Clay asserts that “trials were done on black infants who did not even have HIV.” He alleges that racism alone accounts for the existence of the trials, stating:
"What we know already is that 98 percent of the children experimented on were black and Latino and that the fundamental basis of why they chose those kids was racism. They have the arrogance to say it was for their own good, but we know it was racism."
But if minorities made up the majority of the drug-trial patients, it was because they were empirically the most at-risk for AIDS infection. Moreover, the city officials who approved and oversaw the trials, including NYC's then-Mayor David Dinkins and Commissioner of Social Services Barbara Sabol, were black.
All the same, the conspiracy theory that the drug trials were orchestrated by white racists has found its champions. Clay, unable to recognize the realities of the AIDS crisis, has taken his message to “churches, public gatherings, and private meetings”; he has even managed to persuade one-time Black Panther and current New York City Councilman Charles Barron -- and fellow councilman Bill Perkins -- to call for City Council hearings on the drug trials.
The claims of such demagogues are echoed and supported by a number of "civil rights" and "human rights" luminaries. For example, 2004 Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai insists that “some sadistic [white] scientists” created the AIDS virus “to punish blacks.” “I may not be able to say who developed the virus,” she says, “but it was meant to wipe out the Black race.”
As a result of their constant repetition by ostensibly credible sources, such claims can subtly and profoundly influence the belief systems of the larger population. Indeed, a number of studies have found that conspiracy beliefs about the origin of HIV and the role of the government in the AIDS epidemic are prevalent among African Americans:
- Klonoff and Landrine (1999) found, in a random door-to-door survey of African Americans in California, that 27% of respondents endorsed the belief that “HIV/AIDS is a man-made virus that the federal government made to kill and wipe out black people”; another 23% thought this might be true but were unsure.
- Bogart and Thorburn (2005) conducted a random telephone survey of African Americans and found that more than 20% of men and 12% of women agreed with the statement: “AIDS is a form of genocide against blacks.” In the same study, more than 30% of men and 24% of women agreed that “AIDS was produced in a government laboratory.”
- In a 2004 study by Newman, et al, approximately 55% of Latinos and 50% of African Americans reported believing that the government secretly possessed an HIV vaccine that it was withholding from the public.
- In 2005 The Lacet reported: "In a new U.S. study, by Laura Bogart of RAND Corporation and Sheryl Thorburn of Oregon State University, one in seven African Americans surveyed said they believed that AIDS was created by the Government to control the black population. One in three said they believed that HIV was produced in a government laboratory, and more than half said there was a cure for HIV/AIDS that was being withheld from the poor."
Adapted from "The Left's War on Black and Latino Children," by Ryan O'Donnell (August 31, 2005).