Iowa modernizes HIV criminalization law
By Andrew D. Forsyth, Ph.D.
On May 30, 2014, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed into law a bill making substantial revisions to the state’s HIV criminalization law. The new legislation rewrote state law 709c, which was originally passed in 1998 and made it a felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison, for persons living with HIV infection (PLWH) who are aware of their serostatus to expose “the body of one person to a bodily fluid of another person in a manner that could result in the transmission” of HIV. Under the former law, PLWH could be found guilty of a felony even if a condom was used during sex and no HIV infection resulted. The legislation, known as Senate File 2297, was passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature.
This development is note-worthy given its relevance to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) recommendation to reduce stigma and discrimination against PLWH by asking State legislatures to “consider reviewing HIV-specific criminal statutes to ensure that they are consistent with current knowledge of HIV transmission and support public health approaches to preventing and treating HIV.” Further, the authors of a recently published review of HIV-specific state criminal laws by the CDC and the U.S. Department of Justice encouraged states with such laws to “re-examine those laws, assess the laws’ alignment with current evidence regarding HIV transmission risk, and consider whether the laws are the best vehicle to achieve their in-tended purposes.”
“In updating this law, Iowans have taken a bold step forward to dispel stereotypes and discrimination against persons living with HIV infection,” said Mr. Douglas M. Brooks, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. “Many states could draw important lessons from the efforts of community and state leaders who worked to update the law in order to reduce stigma and discrimination.”
In the U.S., an estimated 15.8 percent of the 1.1 million people living with HIV are not aware of their serostatus. In addition to missing out on the tremendous benefits of accessing health-preserving, life-extending antiretroviral treatment, persons living with un-diagnosed HIV infection have a transmission rate that is nearly four times higher than it is for those aware of their infection and those who are un-diagnosed account for nearly half of all new infections in the country. HIV-associated stigma and discrimination, as reflected in harsh criminalization laws, which effectively discourage people from learning their HIV status, are major barriers to national and global efforts to stem the tide of new HIV infections.
“Updating HIV-specific criminal statutes is critical for the success of public health programs,” said Randy Mayer, Chief of the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Bureau of HIV, STD, and Hepatitis. “We thank Iowa’s legislators for recognizing the importance of this step in our work to reduce HIV transmissions. We hope this will be an inspiration to other state public health programs to work in concert with advocates and legislators to reach the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.”
By Andrew D. Forsyth, Ph.D., Senior Science Ad-visor, Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services