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Three Reasons Why Criminalizing HIV Is So Wrong

By Candace Y.A. Montague

December 19, 2010

Ok. So there's been a lot of talk about the criminalization of HIV lately and this article is a late addition to the debate. For those who are not aware of what criminalizing HIV means, here's a simple explanation. It means that when people who are HIV positive perform an unprotected sex act, or try to expose another person to the virus by biting, spitting or purposely cutting themselves, they should be given the harshest punishment by law. For some, this seems reasonable given the fact that the person has a potentially deadly and incurable disease. However, activists and advocates in the AIDS education field feel that this is over the top and completely unnecessary. The Positive Justice Project summed it up best by stating, "The use of criminal law as a way to stop or slow HIV transmission invariably is ineffective. The reasons why individuals take risks with their health, and how they assess risk, are many and complex. Arresting and prosecuting people with HIV for consensual sexual relationships or no-risk conduct, such as spitting, does nothing to take these reasons into account, or to assess risks based on the specific circumstances of the case at hand, such as viral load or even basic issues of intent or mutual responsibility."

Currently, there are no statutes explicitly criminalizing HIV transmission or exposure in DC but in the right hands of a paranoid, uninformed "advocate" that could all change. Here are three reasons why the criminalization of HIV just isn't right.

1. Criminalizing HIV adds to the insurmountable stigma. Just because someone has HIV that does not mean that they are assuredly going to die or even progress to AIDS. Thanks to modern science, people have been living with HIV for many, many years. HIV is only transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen (and pre-ejaculation fluid), breast milk, and vaginal secretions. So if a man spits on someone, no matter how common and disgusting that is, the person will probably not contract HIV. Putting him in jail for it, however, creates a sense of fear within the community that if a person comes in contact with any bodily fluid from an infected person it will lead to death. Contracting HIV is not a death sentence and it's certainly not worth jail time.

2. Locking up people with HIV means that people with other kinds of STDs such as herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis should be locked up too. HIV is classified as a sexually transmitted disease. If people can be sent to prison for transmitting STDs there won't be many free people left in the world. Look at the numbers. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 700,000 persons in the U.S. get new gonorrheal infections each year and 20 million Americans are currently infected with Human Papillomavirus or HPV ,which could lead to cervical cancer. If giving an STD to another person is a crime punishable by imprisonment, then "Ron Mexico" won't be winning any championship games for the Philadelphia Eagles. Imagine that.

3. In this Examiner's point of view, adults have to take responsibility for their own actions. Although this may be the unpopular opinion, some of the onus for contracting HIV has to be placed on the "victim". Barring rape, abuse, or feeling comfortable within the sanctuary of marriage, no one is forcing people to have unprotected sex with their partner. When adults agree to have unprotected sex, it doesn't just mean that one is consenting to the act of sex. It also means that they are aware of the risks in having unprotected sex and are willing to handle the consequences of their decision. This includes pregnancy, emotional letdowns, or contracting HIV. This is why comprehensive sex education is so critical. Educating young people (or even adults) on the birds and the bees and the snakes that can cost them their lives can shape their decision-making and create a more emotionally intelligent person in the long run. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. But the government should not get involved in the blame game and send people to prison for poor judgement calls.

The average cost of imprisoning an inmate is $20,000 a year. Judging from the current state of the economy, no state has that much wiggle room to afford to lock up a person for biting a police officer and being considered a "biological weapon. Lawsuits are definitely more in order for these types of cases especially if the person knew that they were infected and didn't say anything. But imprisoning people for infecting others is really getting us nowhere. Bottom line: Sending people to jail for purposely infecting others won't do more for ending the epidemic than the death sentence has done for stopping murder.

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