HIV and AIDS discrimination; HIV Discrimination ActPost submitted by Noël Gordon, former HRC Senior Program Specialist for HIV Prevention and Health Equity.

Yesterday Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., introduced the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, a bill that would encourage states to end legalized discrimination against people with HIV and improve public health by removing a barrier to HIV testing.  It also would help end the injustices HIV criminalization imposes on people with HIV, like Nick Rhoades.

When an Iowa court found that Rhoades hadn’t told his adult sex partner that he had HIV, prior to having sex, he was convicted of “criminal transmission of HIV,” a class B felony in that state, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. 

The fact that Rhoades didn’t transmit HIV didn’t matter.

Nor did it matter that it was virtually impossible for Rhoades to have transmitted it, since he both used a condom and had an undetectable viral load. 

After a letter-writing campaign by advocates, the judge released Rhoades after he served a year, but Rhoades still is subject to several indignities, including lifetime sex offender registration, the inability to use social media sites or be around children unsupervised and the participation in regular lie detector tests about his sex life.

Rhoades isn’t alone.  According to the Sero Project, about two-thirds of U.S. states have “HIV-specific” criminal statutes, including some that reference spitting or scratching, behaviors that can’t transmit HIV. Even in states without HIV-specific statutes, people with HIV are prosecuted for “HIV crimes” under general criminal statutes.

Unfortunately, what happened to Nick Rhoades is happening to people in states all across the country. Search for “Robert Suttle,” “Kerry Thomas,” “Mark Hunter,” or “Monique Moree” on Google and you will find stories of people who have found themselves in similarly tragic situations.

The problem with criminalization isn’t just how it stigmatizes people with HIV, treating them as inherently dangerous, or the injustice it imposes on those prosecuted.  HIV criminalization is terrible public health policy, because it discourages people from getting tested. If one doesn’t know one’s HIV status, one can’t be prosecuted.  That’s why leading public health experts are working with community groups to modernize these laws.

Sen. Coons hopes to put an end to this injustice and improve public health, writing in the Huffington Post that “these laws run counter to effective public health strategies, discourage HIV testing, and perpetuate unfair stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS-- people who are our friends, family, and neighbors.” Much like the bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act would incentivize states to review and update their HIV-related criminal statutes to make them consistent with contemporary science and not unduly stigmatize people with HIV.

Sen. Coons’ bill is first of its kind in the U.S. Senate. HRC applauds Sen. Coons for his leadership on this critical issue. Learn more about our work on HIV/AIDS.

Filed under: Health & Aging, HIV & AIDS

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