Helms' Reversal on AIDS Funding Wins Praise

Two women who formed an organization more than six years ago to protest Sen. Jesse Helms' opposition to funding for AIDS prevention and treatment said they are "thrilled" that the retiring Republican has reversed his stance.

"Of course, I'm thrilled," said Patsy Clarke, co-founder of Mothers Against Jesse in Congress. "I really never thought I would live to see the day. I'm particularly grateful that he would say he's ashamed."

Speaking to a group of Christian AIDS activists earlier in the week, Helms said he is "ashamed that I've done so little" to help stem the AIDS epidemic.

He said he would make AIDS funding a top priority during his last year in office.  Helms, 80, is retiring at the end of the congressional term.

Helms told members of Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical Christian group formed by Rev. Frankin Graham, son of Rev. Billy Graham, that Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2 and longtime humanitarian activist, influenced him to change his mind after a visit in which Bono quoted Bible passages to convince Helms that helping the unfortunate meant those afflicted with the AIDS virus.

Bono and Helms have met several times since first meeting in 2000 to talk about debt relief for poor nations. Afterward, Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, co-authored legislation authorizing $600 million in U.S. funds for AIDS treatment and relief in poor nations, particularly in Africa where AIDS has reached devastating proportions.

Helms hasn't always been so open-minded. In 1990, he opposed a bill that would help U.S. cities and states cope with the costs of treating the disease. In 1995, he blamed homosexuals for spreading the disease, saying that money shouldn't be spent on people who got sick as a result of "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."

Helms did not mention homosexuality in his speech Wednesday, urging "strong and healthy marriages."

But his words were enough to strike a chord in Clarke, 73, and Eloise Vaughn, 69, whose sons, both named Mark, died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994 and 1990 respectively.

Clarke said that she was "knocked off my seat" when she read Helms' remarks.  She had written Helms after her son's death, incredulous about his stance on AIDS.

"I know that Mark's death was devastating to you," Helms wrote back. "I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity. I have sympathy for him – and for you. But there is no escaping the reality of what happened."'

Vaughn, 69, said she also was surprised and grateful. "Helms is a bigger man than I thought, to admit shame," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.