"Why should I care about HIV criminalization? People who purposely expose others to the virus should face justice." This response is nothing new. By now, I am well-acquainted with answering the question. As an HIV-positive male who is living in a serodiscordant relationship, prosecution under HIV criminal statutes is an ever-present fear. It does not matter that my partner is aware of my HIV positive status or that I am undetectable and on antiretroviral therapy. Conversely, if you are living with HIV you need to be aware that HIV criminalization impacts you.
The reality is that HIV criminalization laws go directly against the ideas of reducing stigma. Publicly, we create campaigns and memes that tell us that "HIV is not a death sentence," yet 34 states have laws that say it is. It is easy for us to think that it is somehow acceptable to prosecute those who deliberately expose/transmit HIV, however, any prosecution of HIV goes directly in the face of reducing stigma. The mere accusation of transmitting/exposing others to HIV creates barriers to achieving a fair trial. This is due to the sensationalized media exposure that these cases receive as well as the lack of adequate, quality legal representation. In many cases, public defenders who serve as legal counsel do not understand the science and they lack the resources to provide an adequate defense. Additionally, in HIV criminalization cases, a jury is asked to consider statistical data and medical jargon, which for even the most seasoned advocate can be daunting. Criminalizing HIV only serves to perpetuate fear and stigma. Below are a few points to ponder as we engage in the conversation of HIV criminalization.
- Current laws fail to take into account new research such as HPTN 052/PARTNERS study which revealed that a person who is undetectable presents less than a 1% risk of transmitting the virus.
- A person convicted under most HIV criminal statutes is classified in the same category as a child rapist, sexual predator or other sex offender, which requires up-to lifetime sex offender registration.
- A person can be convicted of exposing another person to HIV yet other STDs and hepatitis C face no such punitive action.
- A majority of HIV criminal prosecutions are initiated by jaded ex-sexual partners as retaliation.
- Current criminal statutes were written in 1981 at a much different time in the epidemic when fear was the prevailing emotion.
- If we agree that HIV infection is not a death sentence, how can we justify prosecuting someone for attempted murder?
- In many states, a person convicted under HIV criminalization laws faces a sentence more severe than if they were to commit a more heinous crime than murder.
- As an HIV positive person in a serodiscordant relationship, even though my partner is aware of my status, I could face prosecution under my state's laws.
- In most states, an HIV positive test serves as enough intent for the sake of prosecution.
- There has not been a single prosecution of an HIV positive person accused of exposing/transmitting the virus to another HIV positive person.
The message that I have for people who are living with HIV is to know the laws in your state. Also disclose your status, then ensure that you can prove that you disclosed. Never trust that just because you are in a relationship with someone that your relationship will always exist.
The first-ever "HIV is NOT a Crime" conference will be taking place June 2-5 in Grinnell, Iowa. Please consider joining myself and other advocates as we work to address HIV criminalization across the United States. You can register and learn more about the conference at www.hivisnotacrime.com. You may also learn more about your rights and efforts nationwide by visiting www.seroproject.com.
Read Aaron's blog My HIV Journey.