Print this page    •   Back to Web version of article

AIDS Project Update

By Catherine Hanssens, Esq.

Summer 1996

The AIDS Project's caseload involving the ability of PWAs to get and keep jobs and essential services has continued to grow in the short months since the last Update. For anyone who doubted it, our docket proves a painful point: we're far from a truce in the battle on legal issues affecting the right of people with HIV to live productive, decent lives.

We increasingly are involved in cases which seek to secure the clear application of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state anti-discrimination laws to HIV-related disparities in all aspects of the employment relationship and in the payment of benefits under health and disability policies. The resolution of these questions has a critical impact on the ability of PWAs and their loved ones to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

One of our more quietly dramatic struggles over the right of those with HIV to lead productive lives, however, has been waged outside the courtroom. Early this year, Congressman Bob Dornan finally succeeded in his long-standing campaign to secure federal legislation purging the military of all servicemembers with HIV. Until Dornan's amendment to the 1996 Defense Reauthorization Act was signed into law in February, servicemembers who tested positive for HIV during their terms of service were indistinguishable from other servicemembers with disabilities: their health was monitored and they were permitted to continue to serve and advance in their positions as long as they met the health requirements of their jobs. Servicemembers with HIV, along with those diagnosed with other disabilities such as cancer or heart disease, also were classified as "non-worldwide deployable," meaning that they could not serve in combat or abroad.

The 1049 servicemembers with HIV make up only 20% of those in the military classified as non-worldwide deployable. On average they have served their country for 10 years; some have served in the Gulf War; and many have been honored for special contributions or bravery in service. High-level military officials argued that those with HIV represented years invested in training and valuable service, and in no way compromised military readiness. Nonetheless, Congressman Dornan argued that the presence of HIV-positive servicemembers undermined the combat-readiness of our troops, and unfairly allowed "homosexuals, drug abusers and those who patronized prostitutes" to avoid combat by contracting AIDS through conduct which violates the Code of Military Conduct.

Despite lobbying efforts primarily from Washington-based advocacy groups, President Clinton signed the amended Defense Reauthorization Act in early February. Prior to the signing, Kevin Cathcart and I, along with representatives from the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, met with White House counsel Jack Quinn, Department of Justice liaison Walter Dellinger, White House gay liaison Marsha Scott, and several other administration officials. We made a final plea for a veto and, in its absence, strong arguments for an unequivocal statement that the amendment (signed into law to secure military funding including raises for current personnel) was irrational, unwarranted, and unconstitutional.

While we ultimately were unable to overcome the political rationale for the enactment, it was accompanied by stunning statements by top-level White House and military officials decrying the Dornan Amendment and voicing the view that the enactment was unconstitutional. Two months later, and a week after I attended a subsequent meeting with George Stefanopoulos and most of the same White House officials to argue that the administration had to take a more active role in rejecting the Dornan Amendment and working for its repeal, the provision requiring discharge of HIV-positive servicemembers was repealed.

At the other end of the spectrum of our work is our amicus participation in Quill v. Vacco and Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, two ground-breaking cases invalidating state laws which criminalized physician-assisted suicide. These cases represent a major progression in right-to-die case law and the debate over assisted suicide. They may not carry the immediacy that quality-of-life issues such as opportunities for meaningful work and adequate health care do for most living with HIV. Yet, the ability to live, and die, according to one's own views of when meaningful life has come to an end involve a basic aspect of autonomy and self-empowerment, values central to the struggle of people living with AIDS.

Catherine Hanssens is the AIDS Project Director at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization committed to achieving the full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.

This article was provided by Lambda Legal. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

General Disclaimer: is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, consult your health care provider.