Contends HIV does not necessarily cause AIDS

By Donna Gold

The Boston Globe 16 May 1999

Tanned and elegant, Hilary Billings looks more like a corporate lawyer than a radical. But while this small-town defense attorney may be a smooth talker, his politics have turned him into a scrapper.

He is making a name for himself as the champion of a theory that puts him far from the mainstream: that HIV does not necessarily cause AIDS. It is an idea that virtually all doctors firmly reject. But as AIDS continues to raise legal questions - for example, does spreading the disease constitute an act of murder? - Billings has challenged the fundamental premise behind current research. In his most recent case, decided in April, he argued that an HIV-positive mother should not be prevented from breast-feeding her son because the risk of transmission was inconclusive.

Though he refuses to offer his personal views on whether HIV causes AIDS, Billings thinks there's room for doubt. ''The science and medicine behind AIDS are not all that certain and definitive,'' he said. Even more important, he adds, is the need for debate. ''There is danger in a system that's going to suppress any kind of critical thought.''

Just raising the issue that HIV might not cause AIDS draws heavy criticism. Dr. Michael Grodin, director of medical ethics at Boston University School of Medicine, links Billings and others who promote that theory to the ''irrational and psychotic'' fringes of society. ''We have probably more information about this virus than any other,'' Grodin said.

To Grodin's condemnations, prominent Massachusetts attorney Bennett Klein adds censure. Klein, who successfully fought for the right of HIV-positive individuals to be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, called the hypothesis, ''a very dangerous public health message. What that message tells people is that it doesn't matter if you get infected with HIV.''

Equally dangerous is failing to raise the issue at all and ''not having an open discourse,'' Billings countered.

While AIDS is probably the most litigated disease ever, Klein said, most cases have either involved discrimination or the privacy rights of those who have the disease.

To Billings's knowledge, the question of whether HIV causes AIDS had not been part of the legal discussion until he entered that as part of his defense of a Maine woman who sought the right to withhold powerful HIV drugs from her HIV-positive son. Billings won that case, but not on the question of the AIDS hypothesis. That issue was simply ignored.

''It was as if it never happened, as if there were some sort of ghost quality to the testimony,'' he said after the trial.

Yet the experts he uses are leaders in the research community, scientists such as Nobel Prize-winning chemists Kary Mullis and Walter Gilbert, National Academy of Sciences member Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and biochemist David Rasnick, a designer of protease inhibitors, including one targeted at the HIV virus. Rasnick's work first led him to doubt that HIV caused the immunological suppression of AIDS and more recently, to create the International Coalition for Medical Justice. That fund was established just in time to hire Billings for the defense of Kathleen Tyson of Eugene, Ore., whose disagreements with the AIDS hypothesis led her and her husband into legal trouble.

Tyson is an HIV-positive mother who opted to breast-feed her infant son, believing that the benefits of breast milk outweighed the risks of infection. She saw the risks as limited because she had been carrying the virus for over a decade and had neither infected her husband, nor her daughter, though the girl had been breast-fed for three years.

But a pediatric AIDS specialist objected and produced a court order insisting Tyson follow the standard medical procedure, including foregoing breast-feeding because there is a risk of HIV transmission through breast milk.

Prior to these cases, Billings, 44, was known as a sharp, thoughtful criminal lawyer who has argued against the death penalty before the state Legislature and defended a host of drug criminals in his 19-year practice. Recently he joined with a friend from a local lawyers' hockey team, Jeffrey Silverstein, to form a small partnership. Billings, who can sometimes be found playing lead guitar for a local blues band, is the maverick in the firm.

''He's not a crackpot,'' said Bangor attorney Terence Harrigan, ''but it doesn't surprise me that if someone is taking a new look at this issue, it's Hilary. As long as I've known him, he has been involved in unique cases and has argued unique theories and interpretations of the law that others haven't thought of. He seems to test everybody's intellectual inertia.''

Micheala Murphy, a Waterville lawyer and president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agrees. ''The word that comes to mind is `bold,''' he said.

Though just about every doctor and AIDS activist responds with anger to it, Billings will pursue his questioning of the HIV hypothesis if asked to take on another AIDS case. He insists that people retain the right to respectfully disagree with the establishment, whether that be legal, medical, or activist.