Editorial: Scale back HIV-transmission laws


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On Dec. 1, countries around the globe recognized the 25th World Aids Day. The annual event aims to bring more awareness about the efforts to fight the disease, which killed more than 25 million people between 1981 and 2007.

In the early 1980s, when previously healthy, young gay men began contracting deadly lung infections, cancer, and other diseases as a result of severe immune deficiency, a nationwide alarm was raised, with good reason. Of the 270 U.S. men who had manifestations of what would come to be called AIDS in 1981, 121 had died by the year’s end.

In the midst of the Cold War, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was the enemy that attacked America from within. AIDS clinics sprang up around the country. State and nationwide laws drafted to prevent the spread of AIDS were hurried through legislatures.

The lack of information initially available on the syndrome exacerbated fears and led to speculation on what could possibly spread it, resulting in misconceptions about the transmission of AIDS that still exist today.

In 2010, there were 1.1 million people living in the United States living with HIV, with almost 1 in 5 unaware that they have it, and 50,000 more are infected every year. The largest at-risk groups are gay or bisexual men, but heterosexual sex accounted for 4,003 AIDS deaths in 2010. For those living with HIV/AIDS, stigmatization goes along with the symptoms.

In many states, that stigma is still built into the law. Thirty-five states have singled out and criminalized HIV transmission, even though modern medicine and condoms together make transmission extremely unlikely.

In 2009, an Iowa man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for failing to disclose that he had HIV to a sexual partner. Nick Rhoades was charged with criminal transmission of HIV under Iowa law. But Rhoades had worn a condom and was taking prescription drugs to combat AIDS, greatly reducing the odds of transmission. His partner never contracted HIV.

In delivering his sentence, Judge Bradley Harris compared Rhoades to an armed robber, saying he “created a situation that was just as dangerous as anyone who did that.”

Rhoades’ time was eventually reduced to five years’ probation. But now, with an aggravated-sex-offender label on his name, he isn’t allowed to be alone with children under the age of 14, including his nieces and nephews.

The concept of innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of the American justice system, as well as most other Western nations. As a famous jurist’s saying goes, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer.”  Laws born of fear such as these need to be scaled back in light of the 21st-century advancements made to combat HIV/AIDS while still leaving room for cases of malicious intent or neglect.

Blanket sentencing toward those charged with criminal transmission, whether or not they actually did it, is immoral and reflective of a time characterized by panic and uncertainty, not the environment of progressive research that exists now. As then Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said in 2011, “AIDS is still an incurable disease, but it no longer has to be a death sentence.”

Those with a positive HIV diagnosis will never be able to live a “normal” life. But today, the fight against AIDS should be carried out with treatment and spreading awareness of the facts, not a judge’s gavel.

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