Iowa Advocacy Group Takes on HIV Criminalization (2012)

On May 21st, the Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network (CHAIN) announced the launch of a new education and mobilization campaign to modernize Iowa's HIV-specific statute, "Criminal Transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus." The law, originally intended to reduce the spread of HIV, is considered one of the more punitive in the nation.

"The National HIV/AIDS Strategy introduced in 2010 asks state legislatures to reconsider criminalization laws that may serve as barriers to public health prevention goals and may interfere with public health strategies to reduce transmission of HIV/AIDS," noted Randy Mayer, chief of the Bureau of HIV, STD, and Hepatitis at the Iowa Department of Public Health. "An updated statute could better support public health objectives, such as reducing stigma, facilitating HIV testing, following the guidance of medical and public health officials, and promoting adherence to effective treatment regimens."

Longtime HIV/AIDS advocate Tami Haught, CHAIN's new Community Organizer, joined other Iowans with HIV or hepatitis in 2006 to launch CHAIN. Their mission is to advocate for the prevention of HIV and hepatitis and for access to quality care to improve health outcomes for all Iowans who have or are affected by HIV or hepatitis. They note that HIV-specific criminal laws work against existing public health measures, like HIV testing, partner services and case management, which require trust in public health officials to keep information about behaviors, partners, and potential exposure confidential.

Haught, an Iowan living with HIV for 18 years, noted: "Iowa's current law is outdated, and needs to be modernized. A new bill will not be taken up in earnest until next year; in the intervening months we have a lot of work to do to engage people with HIV and their supporters to educate their communities and legislators on this issue."

Public health experts largely agree that criminal laws should avoid stigmatizing or singling out a specific disease, such as HIV, especially when the evidence is clear that these laws do not decrease the risk of transmission.

"I was the elected prosecutor in Polk County (Des Moines) when the statute was first passed and I thought that the statute made some sense, even though I am a gay man. HIV+ people ought not to go around exposing others to the virus," said Dan Johnston. "However, as we've learned more about the real routes and risks of HIV transmission, and the epidemic has changed, I am convinced that the statute does much more harm than good. For one thing, there remains sufficient bias against gay people and people with HIV that it is hard to get a fair trial in court and a reasonable sentence. And, sexually active people should assume that any prospective partner may be infected, and take reasonable precautions, not just relying upon the law to require people to disclose their infectious status."

To learn more about HIV criminalization and the national movement of individuals and organizations working to repeal HIV-specific laws, click here.