Published: March 17, 2017
-Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Sacramento —
In a test of shifting attitudes about HIV, a group of state lawmakers has proposed that it no longer be a felony for someone to knowingly expose others to the disease by engaging in unprotected sex and not telling the partner about the infection.
The measure by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and others would make such acts a misdemeanor, a proposal that has sparked opposition from Republican lawmakers.
The same downgrade in crime level would apply to people who donate blood or semen without telling the blood or semen bank that they have acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, or have tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the precursor to AIDS.
“HIV-related stigma is one of our main obstacles to reducing and ultimately eliminating infections,” Wiener said. “When you criminalize HIV or stigmatize people who have HIV it encourages people not to get tested, to stay in the shadows, not to be open about their status, not to seek treatment.”
Currently, those convicted of felonies can be sentenced up to seven years in prison.
Between 1988 and June 2014, there were 357 convictions in California for an HIV-specific felony that would have been downgraded by SB 239, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.
The vast majority of convictions were in prostitution solicitation incidents in which it is unknown whether any contact beyond a conversation or an exchange of money was initiated, the researchers said. A sex worker can be charged with a felony if he or she is HIV-positive and solicits sex from another person without telling them of their infection, even if the two do not have sex, Wiener said.
He said the felony law is a vestige of a darker time during the 1980s, when there was no effective treatment for AIDS and some people were calling for putting those infected in quarantine.
Nearly three and a half decades after the disease was identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 35 million people worldwide have died from AIDS-related illnesses.
Medical advances in recent years that developed anti-retroviral medicines have allowed people to extend their lives significantly. Some 18.2 million people are on the medications. The number of people who died from AIDS worldwide dropped from 2 million in 2005 to 1.1 million last year, many in Third World countries where access to expensive medicines is limited.
The monthly HIV treatment regimen costs range from $2,000 to $5,000, according to the California Department of Public Health.
“These regimens have to be taken daily throughout a person’s life to help them live a normal lifespan,” the agency said in a statement. “With the life expectancy for HIV patients increasing, the lifetime cost of treatment in today’s terms is estimated at more than a half-million dollars.”
In California, 126,241 people were living with diagnosed HIV infection in 2014, the last year for which records are available, according to the department.