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New York Times
Breast-Feeding by Mother With H.I.V. an Issue in Custody Case

April 18, 1999
An H.I.V.-infected mother who lost custody of her baby after she insisted on breast-feeding went to court on Friday seeking custody, with the unorthodox argument that her milk cannot spread the deadly virus.

The woman, Kathleen Tyson, and her husband, David, are part of a national movement that rejects the prevailing science on AIDS. They do not believe H.I.V. causes AIDS, and their refusal to give up breast-feeding led the 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.

Lawyers for the Tysons said the couple should have the right to raise their child as they see fit. They promised testimony from biochemists and doctors who say there is no evidence that the human immunodeficiency virus is passed through breast milk, and that there is no solid proof H.I.V. causes AIDS. "She made a choice that she feels is in Felix's best interest," said Hilary Billings, Ms. Tyson's lawyer. "It's a measure of risks against each other and benefits against each other."

Last year, Ms. Billings persuaded a court in Bangor, Me., that Valerie Emerson, a mother who is infected with H.I.V., should retain custody of her three children and be able to pursue whatever medical treatment she deems fit. Ms. Emerson has decided not to allow drug therapy for her 4-year-old, who is also infected with H.I.V.

The "Rethinking AIDS" movement is led by David Rasnick, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. He is expected to testify that there is no relationship between H.I.V. 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 said Felix's health would be endangered if he drank his mother's milk. They said there was no doubt that H.I.V. was the cause of AIDS, and that breast milk can spread the virus.

The hearing is expected to last three days before Judge Maurice Merten of Juvenile Court.

Hours after Felix was born on Dec. 7, a state social worker arrived at the hospital with three uniformed police officers, responding to concerns of Ms. Tyson's doctor that the woman planned to breast-feed the baby.

The social worker, Mary Jo Driscoll, 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."

Several weeks after the state took legal custody of Felix, he tested negative for H.I.V. He has not been tested since. For the last 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 insure the state's will is being carried out. The caseworker said that the child shows no sign of behavior typical of breast-feeding and that Ms. Tyson can be trusted to carry out the court order.

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