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HIV-Infected Mom Fights for Baby

April 16, 1999

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) _ An HIV-infected mother who lost custody of her baby after she insisted on breast-feeding went to court Friday seeking to get him back with the unorthodox argument that her milk can’t spread the deadly virus.

Kathleen Tyson and her husband, David, are part of a national movement that rejects the prevailing science on AIDS. They don’t believe HIV causes AIDS, and their refusal to give up breast-feeding led authorities to take legal custody of their 4-month-old son, Felix, when he was just days old.

``The mother was taking a risk _ she was playing Russian roulette with the virus,″ said Robert Nagler, the state lawyer who represents the boy.

``The parents were blessed with a robust, healthy child,″ he said, ``but they also chose to adopt a cause.″

Attorneys for the Tysons said they couple should have the right to raise their child as they see fit, and they promised to call biochemists and doctors who espouse the belief that there is no evidence that HIV is passed through breast milk, and that there is no solid proof HIV causes AIDS.

``She made a choice that she feels is in Felix’s best interest,″ said Hilary Billings, Kathleen Tyson’s attorney. ``It’s a measure of risks against each other and benefits against each other.″

``The issue would boil down to where a certain line needs to be drawn.″

Last year, Billings convinced a Bangor, Maine, court that HIV-positive mother Valerie Emerson should retain custody of her three children and be able to pursue whatever medical treatment she deems fit. Emerson has decided not to allow drug therapy for her HIV-positive 4-year-old.

The ``Rethinking AIDS″ movement is led by scientist David Rasnick of the University of California at Berkeley. He is expected to testify that there is no relationship between HIV and AIDS, and that the state has no right to enforce unfounded medical theory.

But sentiments on the other side are equally strong. A number of medical professionals and state social workers believe Felix’s health would be endangered if he were to drink his mother’s milk. They say there is no doubt HIV is the cause of AIDS, and that breast milk can spread the virus.

``It’s bizarre that 18 years after the epidemic began that there’s any question about the cause of HIV infection,″ said Leslie Mehlhaff, an infectious disease specialist who advised Tyson against breast feeding.

The hearing was expected to last three days before Juvenile Court Judge Maurice Merten, who will decide permanent custody of the child.

Hours after Felix was born Dec. 7, a state social worker arrived at the hospital with three uniformed police officers after Tyson’s doctor expressed concern about her breast-feeding the baby.

Mary Jo Driscoll, social worker with Oregon’s child welfare agency, said the couple became combative and told her they believed bottle feeding was the method that carried the real deadly risks.

``They were upset,″ she said. ``They believed they were making informed decisions about their son. They thought I was intruding.″

Several weeks after the state took legal custody of Felix, he tested negative for HIV. He has not been tested since. For the past four months, Felix has lived with his parents and sister even though the state has custody.

About once a week, a state caseworker makes a visit to the Tyson home to ensure the state’s will is being carried out.

Tyson found out she has HIV during prenatal screening. She was pregnant with triplets and her lawyer suggested in court Friday that the HIV test may have been inaccurate because of hormonal changes when she lost two fetuses. She has said she never used intravenous drugs, and she and her husband of 11 years have had a monogamous marriage.

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