A bill to restrict HIV/AIDS and HPV education in Iowa schools harkens back to the darkest days of the Reagan era

Jav Ducker/Little Village

Thirty-six years after the Reagan administration began a long-delayed public education campaign about HIV/AIDS, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republicans in the Iowa Legislature have decided that education about HIV/AIDS is no longer needed in public schools.

One of the provisions of SF 496 — a bill introduced by the governor’s office that makes major changes to Iowa’s schools — eliminates the requirement that a public school provide students with age-appropriate information about HIV/AIDS as part of its health curriculum.

That section of the bill also ends the requirement to provide information about human papillomavirus (HPV), and the safe and effective vaccine to prevent it. HPV is spread through sexual contact and can cause cancer. The HPV vaccine became available in 2006, and the next year the Iowa Legislature mandated students receiving information about it. (In 2007, both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office were controlled by Democrats.)

“Limiting teens and young adults from learning about this preventive approach to limit HPV infection is detrimental and illogical,” a group of public health researchers and educators said in a letter to the Gazette.

“Don’t remove education on HPV/HIV from schools,” they concluded.

Gov. Reynolds has not said why she wants to remove that education, and most Republicans supporting the bill claim it doesn’t prohibit such instruction.

Of course, many conservative activist groups have objected to schools sharing information about safe sex since the 1980s. And preventing people from getting accurate information about the HPV vaccine is a top goal of the anti-vaxxer movement.

Just as the vaccine has proven effective against HPV, advances in medical research have turned HIV from an exceptionally lethal virus to a chronic, but treatable, one. But before those advances, it was public education efforts led by activist groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, ACT UP and, closer to home, the Iowa Center for AIDS Resources and the AIDS Coalition of Johnson County, which were eventually joined in that work by federal, state and local health agencies to help Americans cope more effectively with the disease.

• • •

In a 2012 article published in the Journal of Public Health, Dr. Donald Francis, an epidemiologist at the CDC in the 1980s, recalled how political consideration trumped public health consideration in the Reagan era.

Francis was involved with the CDC’s work on AIDS since it began in June 1981, six months after President Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term.

“By January 1983, the full picture had emerged. AIDS was a deadly infectious disease transmitted by sexual activity and by the sharing of blood and blood products,” Francis recalled.

As long as the people suffering and dying from AIDS were primarily gay men or IV drug users, inaction suited the personal and political prejudices of White House leaders and their supporters.

“[W]ith AIDS, the Reagan administration prevented [the CDC] from responding appropriately to what very early on was known to be an extremely dangerous transmissible disease,” Francis wrote.

Francis was put in charge of creating the nation’s first AIDS prevention program, which involved public education on how to prevent virus spread. In early 1985, his section chief at the CDC took the plan to the White House. Even though no one at the CDC expected much from the White House, Francis was still surprised by the reaction to his plan.

“Don, they rejected the plan,” he recalled his section chief telling him. “They said, ‘Look pretty and do as little as you can.’”

President Ronald Reagan delivers remarks on Sept. 20, 1984 during a campaign rally at the Gerald Ford Museum in Cedar Rapids. — White House photo

It wasn’t until Sept. 17, 1985, four years after the start of the epidemic and seven months after the start of his second term, that President Reagan first mentioned AIDS in public. He did so in response to a reporter’s question during a news conference. Reagan said it a “top priority” for his administration. That, of course, was a lie.

But responding to public pressure led by AIDS activists, two months after that news conference, Congress appropriated $190 million for AIDS research, almost double what the administration requested.

In 1987, the Reagan administration finally launched its first concerted effort to raise public awareness about AIDS. Things did begin to improve after Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988. But the Bush administration still prioritized politics over public health, seeking to placate the conservatives and religious fundamentalists in the base of the Republican Party, many of whom embraced the superstitious belief that AIDS was divine vengeance instead of a virus.

“The elite of the Reagan administration, and later the Bush administration, had no idea of their responsibility to protect the health of the people who had elected them,” Francis wrote.

• • •

It’s understandable that the provision of SF 496 ending mandatory HIV and HPV education didn’t get much attention, because the bill included so many other sweeping changes, such as forbidding K-6 teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people in classroom lessons or other school programs; prohibiting teachers and schools from offering any recognition of a transgender or nonbinary student’s gender identity without first getting written permission from a parent; and making it easier to ban books conservative groups find inappropriate (typically books with LGBTQ characters).

It’s also not the most consequential example of putting politics over people’s health this year.

In March, Reynolds signed into law a bill banning any transgender person — student, faculty and staff, or visitor — from using a school bathroom or locker room that corresponds to their gender identity, and a bill banning gender-affirming medical care for any transgender Iowan under 18, which also requires any ongoing care to cease 180 days after the governor approved it.

A photo of Gov. Kim Reynolds posted to the governor’s official Twitter account on May 4, 2023.

Every medical expert, education expert and mental health professional who testified about those bills strongly opposed them. It didn’t matter to the governor or most Republicans in the legislature. Every major organization representing medical professionals in America agrees that gender-affirming care is safe and often essential for transgender youths. It didn’t matter.

Last year, Gov. Reynolds signed into law a ban on transgender girls and women participating in girls’ and women’s sports at schools and colleges. It faced the same unified opposition from experts and professionals. It didn’t matter.

The governor and her Republican colleagues were warned that all of these bans will lead to a greater incidence of depression and suicidal ideation among young transgender Iowans, and likely result in more suicide attempts. It didn’t matter.

It seems that Reynolds and other Republican leaders in the state didn’t learn from Reagan’s failure on AIDS that put politics above people’s health -– and relying on personal prejudices, misinformation and imaginary fears of what might happen, rather than following sound medical advice — produces disastrous results. But perhaps they learned something else from the ’80s.

“These people caused immense preventable suffering and death — and it is likely that no one in the Reagan Administration will ever be held accountable,” Dr. Francis wrote at the end of his 2012 article.

Whether voters will hold Gov. Reynolds and other Republicans accountable for putting politics ahead of the health of Iowans remains to be seen.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2023 issues.