WASHINGTON -- The Senate rejected a ban on providing clean needles to drug addicts Wednesday as the Senate began work on a broad measure to combat the AIDS epidemic, a bill Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., charged would 'encourage and condone sodomy.'
The bill, which avoids such sensitive issues as testing, counseling and notification, stresses research, education and care and has strong bipartisan support. But Helms quickly informed the Senate he would not allow passage until votes are recorded on a series of his amendments.
The Senate rejected 66-18 an amendment by Helms which would bar the use of any money in the bill to provide free needles or syringes to drug addicts, who, along with homosexuals, comprise the largest number of AIDS victims.
Drug addicts are infected through sharing of blood-contaminated needles.
Helms charged that without the amendment, the Senate would approve the use of federal money 'to aid and abbet what is illegal in every state. Unless we close this loophole, we're going to say, it's not only all right to use drugs, but we'll give you the needles.'
But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., ridiculed the amendment, saying health care workers under Helms' total ban on use of the money in the bill for needles and syringes could not get needles to help their AIDS patients.
'No IVs for antibiotics, no IVS for feeding, no chemotherapy,' Kennedy said. He added no one has proposed giving needles to addicts but that some public health service officials favor exchanging clean needles for contaminated ones.
In his opening statement, Helms said, 'There is not one case of AIDS that did not have its origin in sodomy.
'This bill would authorize funds that would encourage and condone sodomy. I will not tolerate and I will strongly oppose the use (of federal funds) to encourage sexual activity outside monogamous marriage.'
Helms also charged that federal money has been used to produce an educational tape 'intended to say to homosexuals, in effect, 'It's all right, if you do it right.''
Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., said, 'Our government does not, and should not, promote homosexual activity or any kind of sexual activity.' But he added that every expert on the deadly disease that destroys the body's ability to fight infection says that, 'Education is the only weapon we have.'
Medical experts say AIDS is transmitted by exchange of body fluids such as semen and blood. It strikes mainly homosexual men and intravenous drug addicts who share needles, their sexual partners and children of infected women.
The Senate, by voice vote, accepted the first of the Helms amendments, which would repeal a District of Columbia law which forbids insurance companies from testing for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The Senate has passed the proposal before, but it has not cleared Congress.
The bill has an open-end authorization for the research program while the first-year estimated cost for the other programs is about $685 million.
The main features of the bill would declare AIDS a national public health emergency, create national and state information and prevention programs, establish training programs for health professionals and create state service programs for care and treatment.
The measure would establish a national research program that would expand and speed up efforts to find a vaccine and cure, expedite research grants and set up rapid evaluation oftreatment methods.
The administration opposes the bill, claiming the legislation would disrupt current efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic and limit 'rapid and flexible responses to changing opportunities.' The administration also said that Medicaid is available for impoverished AIDS patients.
Kennedy and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top members of the Senate Human Services committee who frequently are at odds on legislation, joined forces in support of the bill.
'What first appeared to be an obscure illness threatening only a handful of people has developed into an international nightmare,' Kennedy said. 'The Senate has a role to play in reducing the pain, the tears and the dying that AIDS has unleashed on the nation.'
He urged passage 'to demonstrate to the nation our commitment to do all in our power to defeat this deadly foe and protect our citizens and the citizens of the world from the growing danger that hangs over our civilization.'
'It will help solve a very important issue and help many, many people,' Hatch said.
Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., in an apparent reference to the Helms amendments, urged his colleagues 'to base their votes on the advice of those in the areas of medicine and science rather than the experts in philosophy. We are dealing with nothing less than a mystery, a deadly mystery, that can be solved only by scientific research. Let the votes be decided on scientific evidence.'