Being HIV+ should not be criminal

According to a ProPublica investigation of nineteen states, during the past ten years there have been at least 541 actions where people were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, criminal charges for failure to disclose that they were HIV-positive.  BuzzFeed.com along with ProPublica.com reports that "the national tally is surely higher, because at least 35 states have laws that specifically criminalize exposing another person to HIV. In 29 states, it is a felony. None of the laws require transmission to occur."

Some health and legal experts say using criminal penalties to curtail the epidemic could backfire and fuel the spread of HIV. According to the CDC, 1.1 million Americans are currently living with HIV, but one-fifth of them don’t know it. And studies show that about half of newly infected people got the virus from those who didn’t know they had HIV. So relying on a partner to know, let alone disclose, their HIV status is a risky proposition.

The laws, these experts say, could exacerbate this problem: If people can be imprisoned for knowingly exposing others to HIV, their best defense may be ignorance. Such laws, then, provide a powerful disincentive for citizens to get tested and learn if they carry the virus.

The laws “place all of the responsibility on one party: the party that’s HIV-positive,” said Scott Schoettes, a lawyer who supervises HIV litigation for Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group. “And they lull people who are not HIV-positive — or at least think they are not HIV-positive — into believing that they don’t have to do anything. They can just wait for their partner to reveal their status and not, instead, take steps to protect themselves.”

Schoettes also says that the laws unfairly single out HIV, further stigmatizing and reinforcing misconceptions about living with the virus.

“There’s no reason why we should be singling out HIV for this kind of treatment,” he said. “It’s based in just a lot of fear and misconception.”

Being HIV-positive can still carry a powerful stigma. Since July 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened at least 49 investigations into alleged HIV discrimination. The department has won settlements from state prisons, medical clinics, schools, funeral homes, insurance companies, day care centers and even alcohol rehab centers for discriminating against HIV-positive people. Individuals with HIV may also fear that news of their status will spread to third parties, leading to rejection, embarrassment or ostracism for themselves or even their loved ones.

We need to be responsible for our own well being. With a population of HIV positive people who do not know their positive status, it is important to take the necessary precautions. Campaigns like the Ultimate Fighting Championship “PROTECT YOURSELF AT ALL TIMES” campaign remind of us how to prevent HIV infection. Don't be afraid to have the conversation about HIV. Ask your potential partner if they have been tested and when and the results. Even after an open conversation about HIV, it is important to always practice safe sex, which includes wearing a condom.

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