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HIV Criminalization

By Vanessa Johnson, J.D.

September 22, 2010

HIV Criminalization

Part of my USCA responsibilities included facilitating a round table discussion devoted to HIV criminalization. If I am not mistaken, it may have been the only session at USCA focused on this important topic. Below I reflect on my motivation to discuss HIV criminalization and how this motivation shaped my role at the USCA roundtable: HIV Criminalization.

Why is a session on HIV criminalization important? Because as a person living with HIV (PLWH/A), I am keenly aware that my HIV status, at anytime, could cost me more than just my health.

On some level I live with a certain apprehensiveness that I may face psychological and bodily harm because of my HIV status; that my ability to move freely may be limited because of my HIV status; that I will be thought of and treated as less than due to fear and ignorance, and therefore experience further erosion of my rights and privileges. I not only feel this for myself but for others similarly situated. As an advocate, my personal charge is to ensure that PLWH/A are treated with dignity and respect in every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, there are laws on the books in over 30 states that have the potential to strip us of our dignity and respect -- laws which criminalize the transmission of HIV. These laws have the potential to dismantle all of the efforts the PLWH/A community has made to ensure that the Denver Principles and other rights are continually upheld.

It is extremely important to learn about the current HIV criminalization laws, how they have been applied and how we as a community should respond. Once we survive the initial shock of an HIV diagnosis and mourn the time that this was not an issue in our lives, the majority of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWH/A) choose to continue living our lives in the same manner as HIV-negative individuals. Life does not stop because one is living with HIV. Living, as we know it, may involve participation in sexual activities. It may even involve us getting into a fight or two. Should the possibility that one of the two individuals involved is HIV positive fundamentally change one’s response and reaction? The answer the majority of the time is no.

It is within this context that I participated in the USCA roundtable discussion on HIV Criminalization:

Welcome and Introductions

Vanessa Johnson, JD, Executive Vice President, NAPWA

During this segment, I provided an overview of the role and importance of the Denver Principles and other relevant documents, i.e. Prevention with Positives Principles, developed by NAPWA in addressing this issue. The Denver Principles were created in 1983 during the People with AIDS (PWA) self-empowerment movement; the Principles reflect the rights of PLWH/A.


Overview of the HIV Criminalization Issue

Sean Strub, Senior Advisor, Center for HIV Law and Policy

Sean provides an overview of the issue and stated a number of reasons why these statutes and prosecutions are a problem and may be leading to further spread of HIV. He discussed how many of the HIV nondisclosure statutes came to be as a result of the first Ryan White Care Act. The first Ryan White Care Act contained recommendations from Reagan’s AIDS Commission. Fortunately, subsequent versions of the Ryan White Act deleted these provisions. Also, Sean shared with attendees the recent case of a man who had been personally impacted by these laws. Although, there was mutual consent between the two adults to engage in sexual activity and HIV was not transmitted, he spent time in prison and is now required to register as a sex offender. Mind you, this individual did not transmit the disease and there was consent. Sean concluded his presentation by informing the group that the National HIV/AIDS Strategy included language addressing criminalization.


Existing Criminal Laws and an Update on the Impact of these Laws

Catherine Hanssens, Executive Director, Center for HIV Law and Policy

Catherine provided an overview of the role of existing criminal laws, prosecutorial trends and number of convictions under these laws. She was also able to share via a draft version of a resource document containing a state by state analysis of the variable risks for prosecution and what parts of the country are most impacted by these laws. In response to the growing number of prosecutions, the Center for HIV Law and Policy will be holding the first national meeting on this topic on September 21st, 2010 in New York City, NY. The name of the project associated with this meeting is the Positive Justice Project.

Vanessa Johnson, J.D., is the executive vice president of NAPWA.

Return to USCA 2010 Reports.




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