On September 17, 1985, President Ronald Reagan held his first press conference since the public disclosure three months earlier that actor Rock Hudson had AIDS. Up to that point, Reagan had never spoken publicly about the epidemic, despite the fact that the first cases of AIDS had been reported more than four years earlier and more than 12,000 people had been diagnosed. But things changed with the disclosure of Hudson’s diagnosis; Americans who had never given the epidemic any thought were now confronted with the chilling notion that anyone–a Hollywood actor or even a child–could get AIDS.
Reagan’s staff, anticipating questions on the subject, prepared him to respond. Just as they expected, he was asked whether, if he had school-aged children, he would send them to school with a child who had AIDS. “I’m glad I’m not faced with that problem today,” Reagan answered. He expressed his “compassion” for “the child that has this,” while stating as a given that “he is now an outcast and can no longer associate with his playmates and schoolmates.” Reagan continued, “It is true that some medical sources had said that this cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem.”
Reagan’s answer left many public-health and AIDS experts aghast. He had directly contradicted an advisory issued less than three weeks earlier by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stating that “casual person-to-person contact as would occur among schoolchildren appears to pose no risk.”
But among those who must have been delighted with the President’s answer was a 30-year-old attorney in the Office of White House Counsel. Five days before the press conference, he reviewed the presidential briefing materials and recommended deletion of a sentence encapsulating the CDC’s conclusion: “As far as our best scientists have been able to determine, AIDS virus is not transmitted through casual or routine contact.” In a memorandum, the Assistant Counsel to the President explained, “I do not think we should have the President taking a position on a disputed scientific issue of this sort. There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact, as is true with many viruses, until it is demonstrated that it cannot be, and no scientist has said AIDS definitely cannot be so transmitted.”
Exactly twenty years later, that lawyer, John G. Roberts Jr., would sit before the US Senate Judiciary Committee as the nominee for Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Roberts’s speculation about “AIDS transmission” was as indefensible in 1985 as it is today. By 1983, scientists had identified a retrovirus as the cause of AIDS. This retrovirus, later named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), was known to infect only upon entering the bloodstream, directly or through mucosal membranes–not through intact skin. AIDS had been diagnosed only among individuals having intimate sexual contact with those infected, or those who were exposed to infected blood or blood products. There were no cases of AIDS identified among the caregivers and family members who were not sexual partners of those with AIDS. These patterns had been strong enough for the CDC to announce as early as November 1982 that both airborne and casual contact transmission were unlikely. Not everything was known about transmission by 1985, just as not everything is known to this day. But it is fair to say that casual contact transmission was not among the issues under debate in the scientific and medical community.