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Editorial: Approve HIV-law reform

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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At the end of February, the Iowa Senate unanimously passed Senate File 2297, a bill that, if approved by the House and signed by Gov. Terry Branstad, would amend the Iowa state criminal code and radically alter the penalties inflicted if a person with HIV/AIDS infects another person with the virus.

The current statute, Iowa Code 709C, labels transmitting HIV to another person without consent as a Class B felony, a categorization that can land a defendant in prison for up to 25 years if convicted.
Iowa is one of 35 states to have such a law on the books.

The most egregious and well-known example of this law’s blatant draconianism is probably the case of Iowan Nick Rhoades. Rhoades, who has HIV, had been taking medication for his condition for years and practiced safe sex with his partner who was never infected with HIV.

The partner, however, pressed charges against Rhoades, and he was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison before his sentence was reduced to time served. Rhoades, however, still has to register as a sex offender. His case is before the Iowa Supreme Court.

The bill before the Legislature, titled “The Contagious or Infectious Disease Transmission Act,” would overhaul the current statute. While intending to infect someone with HIV would remain a Class B felony, accidentally or “recklessly” doing so would only be a Class D felony, with penalties being reduced to prison sentences not exceeding five years and fines ranging from $750 to $7,500.
Furthermore, should someone expose a person to HIV without infecting them, it would only be a serious misdemeanor.

We believe that the continued existence of Iowa Code 709C is not only a black mark in Iowa’s legal code that should immediately be reformed, it is an embarrassment for a state that has long been a beacon of civil-rights progress in this country.

Iowa abolished slavery 26 years before the Civil War, and did away with anti-miscegenation laws 100 years before the rest of the country. The University of Iowa was the first public university in the country to admit men and women on an equal basis. And, more recently, Iowa was one of the first states — in fact, the first state not on a coast — to legalize same-sex marriage.

And yet, when it comes to Iowans with HIV, the state has treated the civil rights of these individuals with nothing but contempt and scorn, essentially deciding that the ideal way to treat these people for crimes that are, in many ways, not nearly as black and white as the state’s penal code suggests, is to lock them up and throw away the key.

The existing policy takes one of the most vulnerable groups of our society, the HIV-infected, and labels them as dangerous criminals who, as the judge in the Rhoades case put it, are on the same moral plane as armed robbers, a judgment that, to put it mildly, is grossly offensive to the individuals struggling with this disease all over the state.

We urge the House and Branstad to approve these reforms in order to rectify the punitive, unnecessary damage done by the continued presence of this simply immoral law in our state.


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