Iowa legislators introduce HIV de-criminalization bill


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State lawmakers introduced a bill this week that, if passed, would change the human immunodeficiency virus criminalization laws in Iowa.

Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, worked extensively on the bill with Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines.

“[Iowa’s criminal HIV law] was put on the books when HIV and AIDS were first coming out and little was known about it,” Sodders said. “We have more information, better drugs, and we know more about the transmission of HIV so we also need to update our law to avoid being overly punitive in cases where they don’t need to be.”

Under current Iowa law, people who know about their HIV positive status and have intimate contact, exchange or donate bodily fluids, or share needles before disclosing their status face Class B felonies, punishable by a maximum of 25 years in prison. People convicted under Iowa’s criminal HIV statute must also register as sex offenders for life.

Iowa passed its HIV criminal code in 1998. The state’s law was passed eight years after the Ryan White Care Act of 1990, which required states that sought federal funding for AIDs relief have a means to prosecute people who knew of their HIV-positive status and transmitted the virus to others.

Thirty-four states and two territories of the United States have laws in place to criminally prosecute HIV-positive individuals who fail to disclose their status to their partners.

Advocates who oppose HIV criminalization believe these laws further stigmatize a segment of the population that is already highly stigmatized. Sean Strub, Iowa City native and activist who lives with HIV, believes these laws create second-class citizens.

“When you create different laws for different parts of the population based on the viruses they might carry, you create a viral underclass of citizens,” Strub said. “Iowa does not have a hepatitis criminal statute or HPV criminal transmission statute. In the past year, more women died of cervical cancer from HPV or genital warts than died of AIDs, but HIV is highly stigmatized and is associated with an outlaw sexuality, gay men, people who use drugs — that stigma led us to being treated differently under the law.”

Numerous Republican legislators declined to comment on the proposed legislationk, citing their lack of knowledge on the issue and unfamiliarity with the bill.

Whether HIV is transmitted is irrelevant under Iowa law because the current law is concerned with disclosure rather than transmission. Of the 22 people who have been convicted under current law, only one case resulted in actual transmission of the virus. 

The proposed legislation aims to end this potential determent by taking transmission, malicious intent, and reckless disregard into account. Rather than punish everyone who fails to disclose their HIV status positive, the proposed legislation considers intent, exposure and transmission. 

Under the proposed legislation, nondisclosure with the intent of transmission resulting in transmission would be a class-C felony, punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Nondisclosure with the intent of transmission without transmission would be a class-D felony, punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Exposure without disclosure would be considered reckless disregard for transmission and an aggravated misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison. The provision that requires anyone who is convicted under current law to register as sex offender for life would be struck down in all cases.

Advocates, public-health officials, and legislators fear the focus on disclosure rather than transmission undermines public health by deterring people from getting tested.

Tami Haught, who  has lived with HIV for 19 years said she has witnessed the detriments criminalization laws have posed to public health efforts. 

“People are not getting tested because they are afraid of being arrested,” said Haught, an HIV decriminalization advocate. “We are still fighting the stigma of the ’80s and these laws may have been put on the books with good intentions of reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDs, but I think we have found they are actually hurting public-health goals and contribute to the increase of HIV transmission.”

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