California Bill Seeks to Decriminalize HIV Transmission

Supporters argue current laws are outdated and single out HIV-positive individuals.

A new bill introduced by California lawmakers would amend the state’s HIV transmission criminalization laws to make them more in line with statutes for other serious communicable diseases.

Under the current California law, it is considered a felony to knowingly infect an individual with HIV, regardless of whether coitus had been consensual. This engagement in unprotected sex is punishable by up to 8 years in state prison.

Furthermore, it is a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to 6 years for individuals to donate blood, organs, and tissue (or under specified circumstances, such as breast milk or semen) if he or she has AIDS or has tested reactive to HIV. Meanwhile, a person with a contagious, infectious, or communicable disease who willfully exposes themselves to another person is guilty of a misdemeanor, according to California Legislative Information.

The new Senate Bill 239 (SB 239) was introduced by state Sen Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and would repeal some provisions to classify the crime as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.

“When you tell people that these laws single out HIV and only apply to people with HIV and not any other infectious disease, they pretty quickly see that it’s irrational and discriminatory,” Sen Wiener told STAT News.

It is important to note that knowingly infecting someone with HIV through rape or sexual assault would remain covered under the existing laws.

California passed the current law in 1988 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Since then, many individuals were imprisoned. In a 2015 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, investigators found that 800 individuals came in contact with the criminal justice system between 1988 and 2015 under an HIV-specific law, or under the misdemeanor exposure law. Of the 800 individuals, a majority were women and people of color.

Additional ramifications of the existing law include the discouragement of getting tested. In a recent survey, investigators found that 25% of HIV-positive respondents knew at least 1 person who refused to get tested for fear of criminal prosecution, according to NewNowNext. Furthermore, 58% of transgender individuals believed it is reasonable to avoid getting tested for fear of prosecution.

“These laws are discriminatory, not based in science, and detrimental to our HIV prevention goals,” said Wiener, as reported by NewNowNext. “They need to be repealed.

“It’s time to move beyond stigmatizing, shaming, and fearing people who are living with HIV. It’s time to repeal these laws, use science-based approaches to reduce HIV transmission, and stop discriminating against our HIV-positive neighbors.”