Effort Underway to Override State Laws Penalizing Those Who Expose Others to HIV

WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. marked World AIDS Day with a population of more than 1.1 million infected with HIV, a bicameral movement is underway in Congress to get the federal government to override state laws criminalizing exposure to the virus.

Proponents argue that even though there is still no cure for AIDS, advancements in drug therapies mean HIV isn't as deadly as it once was. They also contend that laws against potential transmission of the virus -- centering around full disclosure of one's illness to a sexual partner -- just stigmatize and oppress those infected with HIV.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he'll introduce the Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (“REPEAL”) HIV Discrimination Act after the Senate returns next week.

“It’s simply not fair that someone having been diagnosed with a chronic, treatable medical condition should automatically be subjected to a different set of criminal laws,” Coons said. “A disturbing number of state and local criminal laws pertaining to individuals with HIV/AIDS are rooted not in science, but in outdated fear. They 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."

"Rather than recognizing that HIV/AIDS is a treatable medical condition, these laws perpetuate the idea that HIV is a deadly weapon and people with HIV/AIDS are dangerous criminals," he continued. "Our laws need to catch up to our science, and this bill would take an important step in that direction.”

Coons said his bill, which would require an interagency review of federal and state laws that criminalize certain actions by people living with HIV, came about because of charges levied against HIV-positive defendants including aggravated assault, attempted murder, and bioterrorism.

His bill complements a House effort introduced in May by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), which expresses the sense of Congress that federal and state laws "not place unique or additional burdens on such individuals solely as a result of their HIV status."

These mandated reviews would happen at the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Pentagon.

“These laws are based on bias, not science. We need to make sure that our federal and state laws don’t discriminate against people who are living with HIV," Lee said. "These laws breed fear, discrimination, distrust, and hatred, and we’ve got to modernize them. That’s exactly what this legislation would do."

Ros-Lehtinen, the only Republican among 35 co-sponsors, said in May that the bill "will help end the serious problem of discrimination in criminal and civil cases against those who are HIV positive."

"Singling out and discriminating against those living with HIV is not in line with our American values and we must do better," she said. "The legislation seeks to modernize our current outdated laws and bring them into the 21st century. I urge my Republican and Democrat colleagues to join Barbara and me in helping those persons living with HIV live as healthy and normal a life as possible.”

In a fact sheet released today, the White House outlined multiple steps for a "shared responsibility" to work toward an AIDS-free generation, including targeting intervention efforts "to the right populations in the right geographic areas" and linking the infected to healthcare, employment and housing.

There was one hint in there that Eric Holder's department is working toward overriding state laws on infecting someone with HIV.

"Stigma and discrimination keep people from getting tested, care and treatment," the fact sheet said. "The Department of Justice (DOJ) will continue its aggressive HIV non-discrimination enforcement efforts, specifically targeting enforcement and outreach to the geographic areas with the highest prevalence of HIV, and continue its efforts to address HIV criminalization laws."

In July 2012, 36 House Democrats wrote the attorney general to express "concern that current state and federal laws lag far behind scientific discoveries in the fight against HIV/AIDS" and to urge Holder to "expedite" his department's review of federal and state laws concerning those living with HIV.

"Despite the remarkable advances in understanding and in treatment of HIV/AIDS, criminal laws and prosecution policies continue to treat HIV as both highly infectious and invariably fatal, and in the process perpetuate the stigma and disparities this Administration has pledged to end," the letter stated, arguing that new treatments available since many laws were enacted make them "plainly obsolete."