"In every child who is born," the author James Agee wrote 50 years ago, "under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again."
Agee has been dead four decades, but I found his words ringing like chimes as I walked across the Albany's Empire State Plaza - that massive marble monument to the power of government and the venality of politics.Finally, a step had been taken to protect the innocent. In New York City, 150 miles south of where I was walking, Gov. George Pataki had announced that, from now on, mothers who give birth in New York to HIV-positive babies will have the opportinity to be told about it.
You wouldn't think that a thing like this could be opposed. You'd be wrong. It is opposed in Albany, in Washington and in state capitals across the nation.
HIV is not treated the way other ailments are treated - not even when the victims are infants. The anti-abortion people complain about dead babies, but there is at least an honest debate to be had about when an unborn child acquires humanity.
There is no such debate about newborns, but none of that makes any difference. For a long time now, New York has mandated blood tests on the 300,000 or so babies born each year in the state. The babies are tested for syphilis, for Tay-Sachs Disease, for sickle cell anemia and HIV, the virus associated with AIDS.
If they have syphilis, they are treated, period. If the mother opposes treatment, tough. But last year 1,400 babies in New York tested positive for HIV antibodies, and nobody could even tell the mothers.
After all, the AIDS activists argued, only one in four of those babies - about 350 a year - is really HIV-positive. Nobody should know which babies test positive because then somebody would know which mothers are HIV-positive. And if the babies die when they don't have to . . . well, that's the way it goes.
That has been the position of people who care more about privacy - generally, the privacy of law-breaking drug-users - than about the lives of helpless infants. There should never have been even a moment of debate over an issue like this. You have to wonder, what kind of people are we that so many of us refuse to deal with that?
So, until last week, about 350 babies would be born every year in New York with a deadly virus in their bloodstreams, and the mother couldn't be told. She would never be in a position to get that baby early treatment with drugs like AZT, which might keep it alive. HIV-positive mothers who didn't know their status would breast-feed and possibly pass along the virus to uninfected children.
New York has had this insane policy that put the state in a position to save the lives of babies at risk but forbade the state to do so. Even in the nation's most politically sensitive Legislature, a legal requirement that condemns babies to die needlessly is too much for some consciences.
About 80 Assembly members of both parties have fought to have the law changed. Sheldon Silver, the Manhattan lawyer who serves as New York's assembly speaker, has sided against the babies.
Finally, in April, a nonprofit group sued the state. This new policy represents a settlement of that suit. It isn't perfect. The mother can still say no, that she doesn't want to know. The mother is still not obligated to seek treatment for her baby. What would be child abuse with any other ailment is still argued in this state as a privacy matter - as though Susan Smith's decision to drown her children was purely her business and nobody else's.
So the insanity continues, but this settlement is a step in the right direction.