REPEAL Act Aims to Modernize Discriminatory HIV Laws
HIV-specific laws are on the books in 32 states and two federal territories—including 13 states that make spitting or biting a felony for people with HIV, even though saliva does not transmit the virus.
The Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (REPEAL) HIV Discrimination Act, introduced in Congress on May 7 by Representatives Barbara Lee and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, aims to reform outdated and misinformed laws that discriminate against and stigmatize people living with HIV.
“State and Federal criminal law does not currently reflect the three decades of medical advances and discoveries made with regard to transmission and treatment of HIV,” the act notes, explaining that most state HIV-specific laws overlook condom use, and that laws and prosecutions “do not take into account the benefits of effective antiretroviral medications, which reduce the HIV virus to undetectable levels and further reduce the already low risk of transmitting the HIV to near-zero.”
An HIV-positive Iowa man was sentenced to 25 years in prison after a single sexual encounter—despite using a condom and having an undetectable viral load. Get a lawyer’s take on this case and others in Ari Ezra Waldman’s BETA article, “The Injustice of HIV Criminalization.”
These laws, the act states, also send mixed messages about sexual health: “[P]lacing legal responsibility for preventing the transmission of HIV and other pathogens exclusively on people diagnosed with HIV…undermines the public health message that all people should practice behaviors that protect themselves and their partners from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.”
“Congresswomen Lee and Ros-Lehtinen are to be commended for tackling the effort to modernize these discriminatory laws to accurately reflect new HIV treatment and prevention regimens based on our nation’s biomedical and behavioral research innovations,” says Ernest Hopkins, director of legislative affairs at San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “People with HIV deserve dignity and equality under the law. Once legislators understand how scientifically outdated and discriminatory many of these laws are, we trust they will act to change them and provide the legal relief people with HIV deserve.”
If passed, the act will create a set of best-practice recommendations, informed by a national review of federal and state laws, policies, regulations, and judicial precedents and decisions to determine whether these place an unjust burden on people with HIV, and whether they demonstrate an evidence-based, medically accurate, and “contemporary” understanding of how HIV is transmitted, the relative risk of transmission routes, and the benefits of HIV treatment.
Of course, before they can start reaping those benefits of antiretroviral treatment, individuals must know they have HIV in the first place. As the act observes, “there is increasing evidence that these laws reduce the willingness to get tested.” Policymakers, advocates, service providers, educators, and HIV-positive people and their allies must continue working to end HIV stigma and ensure that everyone feels safe getting tested for HIV and seeking the services and care they need to stay healthy.
To learn more about the Repeal Act of 2013, see the May 7 press release from Representative Lee’s office, excerpted below and available at lee.house.gov.
Washington, D.C.– Today, Congresswoman Barbara Lee ( D-Calif.) was joined by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) to introduce H.R. 1843, the Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (REPEAL) HIV Discrimination Act. The REPEAL Act expresses the sense of Congress that federal and state laws, policies, and regulations should not place a unique or additional burden on individuals solely as a result of their HIV status.
“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. These laws breed fear, discrimination, distrust, and hatred, and we’ve got to modernize them. That’s exactly what this legislation would do,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee….
Reilly O’Neal is a freelance writer and former editor of BETA.