The Hamilton Spectator on Monday examined debate among some legal experts and HIV/AIDS advocates over criminalizing HIV transmission for those who know they are living with the virus. The Spectator examined the case of Johnson Aziga, an HIV-positive Canadian resident who on Saturday was convicted of murder for not informing sexual partners of his HIV status and knowingly spreading the virus. One of Aziga's sexual partners who became contracted the virus died. According to the Spectator, although some people believe that knowingly spreading HIV should be considered a criminal act, many HIV/AIDS advocates contend that such actions are unreasonable and counterproductive. Edwin Bernard, a freelance writer and editor who specializes in HIV/AIDS-related issues, said Aziga's trial is particularly significant because it is the first case worldwide to consider whether intentional HIV transmission can constitute homicide. Bernard added that Aziga's case "raises all kinds of moral and legal questions about responsibility and blame."
Winifred Holland, a former University of Western Ontario law professor, said she believes most HIV-positive people are responsible, get tested and disclose their status. However, she added that the law should intervene when public health measures do not work. According to Holland, criminal sanctions "protect the public from behavior that people see as potentially damaging and threatening to society." She said that such criminalization would protect the public from "a minority who are hell-bent on either deliberately or recklessly infecting other people" with HIV. She added, "To me, it's just a no-brainer to criminalize" reckless HIV transmission. Holland also said that such a measure only would "be used in these pretty extreme cases," adding, "If the measure isn't required, it won't be used."
However, many HIV/AIDS advocates assert that criminalizing HIV transmission "in any circumstance risks demonizing all people with HIV." According to the Spectator, these advocates argue that it would be unreasonable to compel people to disclose their HIV status under the law, particularly because some people are unaware that they carry the virus. In addition, criminalizing HIV transmission could worsen the discrimination and stigma associated with the virus, some advocates say. Alison Symington, senior policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said, "The majority of coverage in the media about HIV is focused on the few people who are facing criminal charges, and the risk with that is that it puts the idea in the minds of the general public that all people living with HIV are potential criminals." Moreover, criminalizing transmission could discourage people from seeking HIV testing, prevention and treatment services, according to some advocates. Bernard said, " If this means that even one person who has HIV but doesn't know it is then put off from testing or treatment, subsequently goes on to unwittingly infect others and eventually, needlessly dies, then this trial has done more harm than good" (Hemsworth, Hamilton Spectator, 4/6).
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Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, search the archives, or sign up for email delivery at www.kaisernetwork.org/dailyreports/hiv. The Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of the Kaiser Family Foundation, by The Advisory Board Company. © 2009 by The Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.