Wednesday, February 10, 2016
This is the first in a series of posts addressing the status of those in the US living with HIV/AIDS.
To varying degrees of culpability, over thirty states in the nation have laws criminalizing having sex while HIV positive. States vary from treating HIV the same as exposing a partner to any STI to intentional infection of a sexual partner. Many of the statutes are based upon outdated science.
Most criminalization statutes originated during the hysteria of the 1980's when thousands, primarily gay men, died of the virus because no stabilizing or preventive medication had been developed. The treatment world has changed. And while a few states amended or invalidated laws designed to punish those living with HIV for having sex without disclosing their status, overall the U.S. has done very little to update laws to reflect the limited likelihood of transmission.
No longer is HIV a terminal condition. Contemporary treatments are effective not only in extending life within normal range, but in prohibiting transmission. Viral loads can be undetectable, making transmission impossible. Aids.gov states that HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva. There is no known case of HIV transmission through spitting, yet many states enhance punishment for those who are HIV positive and spit on a police officer. Bad science makes bad laws.
In 2008, a man in Iowa, Nick Rhoades. was sentenced to 25 years after a one time sexual encounter during which he used a condom but did not disclose his positive status. His viral load was undetectable. After spending over five years in jail, his sentence was reduced to time served after Lambda Legal successfully assumed representation. Prison release happened only after Rhoades spent six weeks in solitary confinement, a traumatizing experience all its own.
While HIV is treatable, this does not diminish anguish felt by those who have been infected through a non-disclosing sexual partner. But the penalty for transmission, even intentional, is often as great or greater for crimes of where the victims are killed. The most recent conviction took place in Missouri last year. Twenty-three year old Michael Johnson was prosecuted for knowingly exposing sexual partners to HIV. Only one of the partners contracted HIV due to the encounter with Johnson. Johnson was sentenced to over 30 years in prison, a sentence far longer than most manslaughter sentences.
According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy nearly two hundred HIV prosecutions have occurred since 2008.
The Global Network of People Living with HIV calls the US one of the world's hotspots for HIV criminalization.