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In the NewsMarch 23, 2011 11:38

Elizabeth Taylor's Legacy on AIDS

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“[Your presence] would do so much for us to get rid of the archaic stigma attached to the disease and to make people realize that it is no longer a minority disease; it can happen to anyone. ”

Elizabeth Taylor was a tireless crusader in fighting HIV/AIDS, especially in the early years of its spread. It's estimated that she helped raise more than $100 million.

VIEW one particular episode in her battle where Taylor took on a big challenge: To get President Reagan to deliver a major speech on the crisis. It was 1987. The actress, who was serving as the national chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), wrote a letter to her old Hollywood friend and colleague, and his wife Nancy, asking him to talk about AIDS at amfAR's fundraising dinner. Her letter was from the heart, and it was persuasive.

"It was her personal appeal that got the president there," says Landon Parvin, who wrote the speech.

Seven weeks later Reagan gave the keynote address. It started out well. Reagan announced the creation of a national commission and called for education efforts and compassion. He told his audience: "There's no reason for those who carry the AIDS virus to wear a scarlet 'A.'" But, as you'll see in the video, the speech then took a turn for many in the audience, and the positive messages in it were lost in the ensuing political arguments and backlash.

Throughout his presidency Reagan had distanced himself from the AIDS issue. Two years earlier his staff prepared a briefing paper suggesting he deliver a statement expressing sympathy with parents who were worried about sending their children to school with a child who has AIDS and emphasizing there was no danger from casual or routine contact.

But John Roberts, a young White House lawyer -- and future Supreme Court chief justice -- reviewed the paper and advised: "I would not like to see the president reassuring the public on this point. ... We should assume that AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact until it's demonstrated that it definitely cannot be."

By 1987, when Reagan gave the speech, 40,000 Americans already had died of AIDS and by 1990 as many as a million had been infected.

The video clip is from our Age of AIDS series. Watch it in full online on the site, and explore more there, including a timeline of the pandemic, a rundown on how the virus works and why AIDS is a 100% preventable disease.

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posted march 23, 2011

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