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Crime and Punishment: An International HIV Disclosure Dilemma

By Dave R.

October 25, 2012

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This article originally appeared on, Canada's Online HIV Magazine. It is being reposted here in two parts.

Read part two: "Crime and Punishment: The U.S and Canadian Contexts of an International HIV Disclosure Dilemma.

There are times when many people outside the United States and Canada experience National Enquirer levels of disbelief at what's goes on in parts of North America in the field of sexual behavior and politics. The current criminalization of people with HIV who fail to tell their partners of their status is just such a moment in time. The sex may be safe and the viral load may be undetectable but you can still be charged with using your body and your virus as a murder or assault weapon, if you don't pre-warn that you're living with HIV.

Have lawmakers never heard of personal, sexual responsibility and the right to choose and refuse? Have thirty years of AIDS advertising been completely wasted? It appears that someone negative who has sex with someone positive will always (legally) be in the right if it comes to a dispute. Never mind that virtually everyone on the planet of sexual maturity knows by now, that the way to avoid disease is to have safe sex and the only safe way to be certain is to undergo an HIV test ten minutes before sex and even then, that person could have been infected in the last three months. After all that, they always have the choice whether to have sex or not! Of course I wouldn't include rape victims and other powerless persons; they are clearly cases apart. Yet, lawmakers in two of the supposedly most advanced and civilized societies in the world brush personal responsibility aside and automatically make the negative person the victim and the positive person the villain! Where's the balance? You could say that having HIV is the equivalent of being electronically tagged for the rest of your life as it is ... but they want to sentence you again and lock you away!

The whole subject of criminalizing people who have HIV and may or may not transmit it, is both a judicial and moral minefield. Sentences for transmission across the world range from a small fine, to life imprisonment or even worse in some countries. This shows how difficult fair legislation can be, especially when individual views and emotions clash with stigma and public health issues. However, to punish someone for having the virus; not transmitting it because of safe sex and undetectable viral loads and preferring not to tell the unharmed partner; is the world completely upside down! Exceptions to this may be those who genuinely set out to infect someone, or someone who infects through rape, or sexual assault but in the vast majority of cases this doesn't apply.


From a strictly personal point of view, it's just too jaw-dropping for words but I would hazard a guess that most people's reactions here in the Netherlands (including heterosexuals) would be ones of astonishment at the sheer unfairness of it all. Then I began to wonder if I wasn't perhaps jumping the gun with that reaction and decided to find out exactly what the legal situation here is regarding disclosure and the transmission of HIV. I also looked at other parts of the so-called First world to see if there is any form of universal consensus on the subject. Maybe knowing how other countries deal with the issue might bring some clarity? Certainly, it should highlight those administrations that are making politically influenced legal judgements, based on moral and populist sentiment, which stigmatize a single group.

It's a bit of a grey area here in the Netherlands. They work on the principle that if it isn't in the statute book, then it can't be illegal. However, there is no explicit law that either excuses HIV transmission, or finds non-disclosure not a problem. The highest judicial authority in the land (the Hoge Raad) has however, made several significant judgements since 1999 and have concluded in each case that it's practically impossible to prove intent when it comes to HIV. The Hoge Raad is quite willing to prosecute people who intentionally infect others but it finds that having HIV and keeping that information to yourself; combined with having unprotected sex is no reason at all to assume intent. Basically this means that although the police may wish to prosecute in these circumstances, it will never come to anything because the highest court in the land has ruled out any possible judicial consequences. It may sound somewhat "sitting on the fence" but it's about as pragmatic a ruling as you could find.

Believe me the ruling has been severely tested recently. In the years after 1999, a number of individuals were brought to court and prosecuted (on the grounds of attempted grievous bodily harm), only to have the cases overturned on appeal to the Hoge Raad. However, more recently the exact nature of this policy was tested when a number of barebackers in the north of the country were found to have been injecting drugged or drunken guests at parties with HIV-infected blood (an absolute exception by the way!). This was more or less conclusively proved and quite severe sentences (by Dutch standards) were issued. However, after successful appeals, parts of the case are again going to be reviewed because nobody can be certain that the "victims" hadn't already contracted the virus through earlier, other means. They were after all, mainly seasoned party-goers. So you have a situation which highlights how shallow the North American prosecutions actually are. The defendants here had little to defend and had admitted their guilt in the face of evidence but whether they had actually infected their "victims" is almost impossible to prove, so therefore attempted murder, or grievous bodily harm becomes almost irrelevant. It's a system which looks at HIV in the most sensible and objective light possible at the highest possible levels. In 2005, the Dutch Cabinet even decided to avoid creating any law on the subject which may turn out to be unfair and unworkable in reality. So, in black and white terms, you may find someone taking you to court for infecting them without your knowing that they were positive but working through the legal system, that person will never be prosecuted without 100% proof that it was deliberately done.

Evidence of the success of such pragmatism is that the HIV figures in the Netherlands are proportionately far smaller than in countries with more severe legal enforcement. It doesn't stop here either; the teenage pregnancy figures are miniscule in comparison to the United States and drug use (and the social problems that ensue), are again proportionately a fraction of those in North America. For all those right wing political figures who see the Netherlands as the gateway to Hell and damnation; they could learn a lesson as to how pragmatic law making and social policies are not abused but lead to less social problems.

However (and this is a major point) these liberal policies based on common sense and fairness cannot be hijacked by future populist political leaders because the Netherlands always has a coalition government in power. The Christian democrats and other Christian parties may not be happy about certain relaxations and what their instincts tell them are "immoralities" regarding sex but they can't do a damned thing about it because their views are always tempered by the other moderate middle parties in the coalition. It has been this way for a long time and will remain this way for the foreseeable future, thanks to the political structures here. It can of course also be extremely frustrating because almost everything that's promised in election manifestos gets watered down in the compromises made after getting into power. However, its greatest advantage is that extremist views can never gain the upper hand. That word again; pragmatism! It has resulted in this country being one of the most relaxed about things people enjoy in life and one of the most socially balanced in the world. A large Islamic and therefore by nature, unbending population may affect things in the future but for now, the Netherlands is still one of the best places to be HIV positive in the world.

In France, the situation is fairly similar to that of the Netherlands in that there are no specific laws regarding HIV transmission. However, as in most countries, there have been individual cases which have helped shape both public opinion and judicial decision-making. Like the barebackers in the north of the Netherlands; one particular case caught the public imagination in 2004. A man called Christophe Morat was sentenced to six years imprisonment for failing to disclose his status to two women, both of whom became infected. One later committed suicide and largely due to this, Morat's appeal was rejected out of hand. The other woman is now a member of an action group (Femmes Positives) determined to get the French government to create a special law allowing women to prosecute former lovers. This widened the debate in France as to whether HIV positive people could be deemed either "victims" or "perpetrators" in the eyes of the law. Equally many argued that the concept of "equal responsibility" should remain, especially with regards to contraception. For the time being, the French, like the Dutch remain pragmatic about the problem, at least in the eyes of the law.

In 2011, the Danish government suspended one of the harshest laws in Europe concerning HIV transmission. Basically, just as we're now seeing in the States and Canada, people could be found guilty even without infection; so negligent exposure to the possibility of infection was as equally punished as direct transmission. Fortunately, a serious lobby of medical experts, legal professionals and people living with the virus were able to persuade the government to look again; largely thanks to the success of HAART and the resulting unlikelihood of infection. In 2011, the laws were suspended and a thorough enquiry based on science and not stigma was implemented.

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See Also
Crime and Punishment: The U.S and Canadian Contexts of an International HIV Disclosure Dilemma's Just Diagnosed Resource Center
Telling Others You're HIV Positive
More News and Articles on HIV Disclosure

Reader Comments:

Comment by: josie (adelaide) Fri., Nov. 16, 2012 at 6:45 am EST
this article obviously comes from a place of personal indignation,rather than objectivity. Firstly, saying that unprotected sex isn't a particularly effective way to transmit HIV is an overly defensive thing to say. It's certainly been effective enough in many corners of the world. A statement such as that is a slap in the face to many a young African wife. Secondly, it IS, as you say, every individual's choice to have unprotected sex, with both parties carrying a responsibility to protect themselves AND each other. A HIV + person is knowingly and willingly failing on both of these counts. This is called negligence. Thirdly, your obvious distaste for Islam didn't need to be brought into this discussion. It only serves to highlight that you are on the war path, and seek to defend the indefensible, simply because the perpertrators are of the positive persuasion.
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Comment by: Dave R (Amsterdam) Sat., Nov. 17, 2012 at 6:04 am EST
Thank you for the points you make. I seem to have been guilty of not explaining myself properly and leaving things open to misinterpretation. I'll try to address your issues.
Regarding the 'distaste' for Islam, if you have time,I would like to refer you to the answer I gave to the comment from Erin below. I have no problem with Islam or any other religion for than matter; very often it's religious leaders' implementation of their own reading of religious ideas that leads to oppression of others and that I'm very much against.
As far as defending unprotected sex in any way goes, I think you'll find that I never say that in the article(although may have unwittingly given that impression). I am indignant, you're right there but only at the severity of the criminalisation of non-disclosure. I believe it's not only unhelpful in the battle to reduce HIV numbers and encourages even more stigma against people living with HIV but it will prevent many people getting tested and consequently getting treated and that's surely not the point. If there has been a case of non-disclosure with protected sex...and non-infection as a result, imprisonment is surely an over-the-top reaction. Of course disclosure has to be encouraged at all times, as has safe sex (we all want to see the end of HIV) but criminalisation is, to my mind, not a constructive way to go. We need to encourage everybody to get tested regularly and reduce the stigmas and fears of disclosure so that it becomes a sensible and welcome thing to do in society. The threat of imprisonment will drive certain groups of people who have sex even further into the shadows and the disease will continue to spread undiminished.
I would be happy to continue this conversation with you if you wish - just drop me an email using the button under the article
Best wishes,

Comment by: Erin (Canada) Tue., Oct. 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm EDT
I was enjoying this article, until I read the following unfortunate line: "A large Islamic and therefore by nature, unbending population may affect things in the future but for now, the Netherlands is still one of the best places to be HIV positive in the world."

While there are certainly Islamic currents in the Netherlands, they are multiple, not monolithic. The suggestion that all Muslims are the same is misleading. The idea that Muslims are by "nature" an "unbending population" makes for dismal reading.

In responding to HIV stigma, let's not propagate other forms of unjust discrimination.
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Comment by: Dave R (Amsterdam) Thu., Nov. 1, 2012 at 5:13 am EDT
Thanks for your response and in general I would agree with you but despite the diverse Islamic religious groups and their multiple origins in the Netherlands, the overwhelming Islamic public opinion here, is anti gay and anti HIV if it comes from LGBT origins. In that respect, they are 'unbending' and that's what I was referring to but maybe I should have made that clearer.
Muslims may well differ on theological and cultural themes within Islam itself (Sunni, Shiite and others) but regarding homosexuality and homosexuals living with HIV, there is almost universal condemnation and this includes opinions from those under 30. There is little evidence that the younger generation is more tolerant towards LGBT people here - prejudice is far too deep rooted. Not long ago, an Imam in Amsterdam proposed to his congregation throwing homosexuals head first, from the highest floor of highrise flatblocks as a means of solving 'the problem'. He received widespread criticism from outside the faith but absolutely no sanction from the government. These extreme views exist in the Netherlands, as well as more moderate opinions but almost all muslims here are united in their condemnation of homosexuality and their lack of sympathy for people living with HIV.
Fortunately, the islamic vote is split in this country and successive attempts to form an islamic political block have failed because of internal dissent but more than a million voters in a land of 17 million people, is a significant opposition to tolerance and acceptability for LGBT people, (should they ever get their act together). I am by no means anti-islam - the religion has given us so much throughout history but I can't find its views on homosexuality and HIV acceptable.

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HIV, Neuropathy and More: Avoiding Becoming a Nervous Wreck

Dave R.

Dave R.

English but living since 1986 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. HIV+ since 2004 and a neuropathy patient since 2007. I've seen quite a bit, done quite a bit and bought quite a few t-shirts if you know what I mean; but all that baggage makes me what I am today: a better person I believe, despite it all.

Arriving on, originally, was the end result of getting neuropathy as a side effect of the medication, or the virus, or both. I found it such a vague disease and discovered very little information that wasn't commercially tinged, or scientifically impenetrable, so I decided to create a daily Blog and a website where practical information, hints, tips and experiences for patients could be gathered together in one place.

However, I was also given the chance to write about other aspects of living with HIV and have now contributed more articles about those than about neuropathy. That said, neuropathy remains my 'core subject' although one which unfortunately dominates both my life and that of many other HIV-positive people.

I'm not a doctor or qualified medical expert, just someone with neuropathy and HIV who has spent the last few years researching the illness and trying to create information sources for people who want to know more.

I also have my own personal website and write for

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