When Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) realized that there were still laws on the books in 34 states criminalizing people with HIV/AIDS, she sprang into action, introducing legislation intended to move states to change their laws.
Here Lee, who has long been one of the most ferocious fighters in Congress for HIV/AIDS prevention and advocacy and spoke at the opening session of the International AIDS Conference last night, talks about how these laws got on the books and why they must be removed.
Q: You have sponsored legislation to decriminalize people with HIV. How did HIV/AIDS become criminalized in so many places anyway?
A: The criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure in the United States began with the 1990 Ryan White CARE Act, when Congress mandated that States prove the adequacy of their laws for criminal prosecution of intentional transmission of HIV before they could receive federal funding for HIV prevention. By 1993, nearly half the States had HIV-specific criminal legislation.
Now, 34 States and two U.S. territories have criminal statutes that specifically mention HIV/AIDS, but most of these laws were written and adopted before many of the scientific knowledge that we have today about HIV, people living with HIV, and the ways the virus can be transmitted and not transmitted.
Many people living with HIV have been given sentences of 10 to 30 years even in the absence of transmission.
The way our nation has tried to address the spread of HIV through our criminal law is both outdated and counterproductive to ending this disease. We must be forward thinking in the way that we address the epidemic and not allow for discrimination of people living with HIV to be written into our laws.
Do you feel like we have made significant progress in our society in using education on HIV/AIDS to remove much of the stigma attached with being HIV positive?
Yes, but stigma is real and still a very serious issue, particularly among communities of color. We need to have frank discussions in our communities about discrimination and marginalization of whole segments of our population because of what they think, how they look, what they do or who they choose as their sexual partners.
Homophobia is also a major issue in minority communities. And we know stigma and discrimination play a huge role in preventing people from getting tested and creating barriers to care and treatment services. It also drives people away from their families and their communities.
We also have to get real about sex education in this country. Our youth need all the information so they can make smart choices, and ‘abstinence-only’ programs don’t work. It’s time to bring sex-education up to date to reflect the real-life situations facing young Americans--and that is why I introduced H.R. 3324, the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act.
Do you believe these criminalization laws affect the actions and behavior of people who are HIV positive?
Many of these laws mandate HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status to their partners--even when protection is used and the defendant shows that they took precautionary measures to not transmit or expose the other person.
These laws are contrary to CDC recommendations that partner notification be done in a voluntary, confidential manner to avoid damage to relationships, loss of housing and even potential violence against people living with HIV.
Don’t we still occasionally come across stories of HIV predators who are purposely trying to spread the disease?
I think anyone who has malicious intent to cause harm to another person and acts on that intent should be prosecuted under the law, but I don't think that the law should target any one disease or any person living with that disease. This bill does not exempt people who are HIV positive from the law--it simply calls for HIV to be treated like every other disease or condition. There is no reason to highlight one particular disease in the law.
How much support have you gotten in Congress for legislation to decriminalize HIV/AIDS?
Last year, I worked with Congressmen Jim McDermott (WA) and Trent Franks (AZ) to launch the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus. We came together to create the caucus as a way to examine methods by which the United States can maintain global leadership in the response to the epidemic. I am very proud of the membership, which is both bipartisan and bicameral. The Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus will explore five thematic areas:
Implementation of the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy
Financing for Bilateral and Multilateral HIV/AIDS programs
The state of HIV/AIDS research
The role of Faith-Based Organizations
The 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the co-author, with Kirk Franklin, of The New York Times best-seller "The Blueprint."
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