Thomas, who participated in the conference by video, was prosecuted for not disclosing his HIV status even though he had an undetectable viral load and always used a condom with his partner, making the transmission of HIV almost impossible.
In fact, his partner wasn’t affected, but he is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence for this and will not be released until 2038.
Currently, there are 32 states that have HIV-specific criminal laws where people are prosecuted for perceived exposure to or transmission of HIV, even in the absence of transmission or the increased risk of transmission.
An analysis by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Justice researchers found that, by 2011, at least 32 states had enacted a total of 67 HIV-related laws focused on persons living with HIV, and prosecution for alleged exposure to HIV is happening in at least 39 states.
Furthermore, bodily fluids such as blood, semen, and saliva from those living with HIV have been referred to as deadly weapons. Still worse is the fact that people have been charged with aggravated assault, attempted murder, and even bioterrorism under the current set of laws.
In response to the outdated laws, attitudes towards those that are HIV positive and the advances that have been made over the past three decades, congresswomen Barbara Lee and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced “The Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (REPEAL) HIV Discrimination Act” in 2013.
The bill was assigned to a congressional committee in December 10 of that year, and almost a year later this is where it still sits.
In short, the bill would require a review of all federal and state laws, policies and regulations regarding the criminal prosecution of individuals for HIV-related offenses. The bill aims to modernize our justice system and end criminal discrimination and consequences associated with having HIV/AIDS and engaging in sex.
There is an urgency to restore a standard of fair treatment for all. How will punishing “exposure” encourage people to reveal their HIV status to their sexual partners, seek counseling or get educated? Where should the focus be, on criminalizing HIV-positive people or getting people tested and treated, which can reduce the risk of infecting someone else by 95 percent?
In a society where many different populations suffer the consequences of being stereotyped and marginalized, how will the status quo move us forward in our thinking and actions to increase equity and social justice?
There is little evidence to support that our current laws actually reduce the spread of HIV, but they do promote fear and stigma while undermining HIV prevention efforts.
HIV-related stigma is a significant public health problem creating barriers for those with HIV. It makes people with HIV feel that they can’t be honest for fear they could lose the very services they need most, all of which are essential to their overall health.
Scientific understanding and advances have surpassed the need for these outdated laws. Keeping them endangers present and future public health efforts to reduce HIV infection. Let’s get smart and take action today to decriminalize HIV exposure and transmission.
Daryl Johnson is a Master of Public Health candidate at Long Island University.