Lambda Legal | Scott Schoettes - California Senate Bill 239 is a long-overdue update of California’s outdated and discriminatory criminal laws targeting people living with HIV. As a co-sponsor of this important legislation, Lambda Legal wants to correct some misperceptions and clarify the purpose of this bill.
SB 239 was introduced to improve public health by creating an environment in which more people are willing to get tested for HIV, to obtain the medical treatment they need to protect their own health and the health of others and to discuss their HIV status with sexual partners.
By singling out people who know they are HIV-positive for severe criminal punishment as a result of sexual activity, regardless whether there was any real risk of transmission or any harm actually occurred, current law inhibits rather than encourages the exact practices that will help combat HIV/AIDS.
Let’s get the biggest misperception about SB 239 out of the way first.
SB 239 does not change California law with respect to disclosure of a person’s HIV status.
Current law does not require disclosure of one’s HIV-positive status prior to sexual activity. While it is true that the current HIV exposure statute applies only if the person did not disclose their HIV-positive status; mere nondisclosure isn’t a violation of the law. Rather, the person must also act with the specific intent to transmit HIV.
SB 239 would not change that.
Instead, SB 239 updates the law to incorporate the current scientific understanding of HIV.
For example, we now know that people living with HIV who are taking HIV medications—and therefore have a suppressed viral load—cannot transmit HIV to their sexual partners. With that in mind, SB 239 clarifies that activities undertaken to reduce the risk of transmission—such as using a condom or being on treatment—demonstrate a lack of intent to transmit HIV (or, for that matter, any other disease).
These refinements of the law help define the limited circumstances under which it is appropriate to penalize disease transmission.
SB 239 also eliminates the injustice in California criminal law for people living with HIV.
Under current law, HIV is the only medical condition that can result in a felony conviction. And individuals with HIV can be subject to a longer potential sentence than for certain types of manslaughter.
Exposure to all other infectious or communicable diseases—several of them also incurable or potentially fatal if untreated—would result in at most a misdemeanor conviction.
Given that HIV is now a manageable condition for people with access to care, it is time to stop putting it in a class all by itself. SB 239 would pull HIV out of its own separate statute and include it in the law that applies to every other serious communicable disease.
Eliminating this type of discrimination against people living with HIV is an important step in achieving the public health goals of SB 239.
Thanks to modern medical science, we now have the tools needed to make AIDS a thing of the past.
People who are diagnosed with HIV in a timely fashion and receive the necessary medical care can expect to lead long, healthy lives. But currently, approximately one in seven people living with HIV in the United States is unaware of their HIV-positive status, and only 40% of people living with HIV are engaged in medical care and have a suppressed viral load.
We must increase the number of people who know their HIV status and are on treatment, and SB 239 will help achieve that.
There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to eliminate public misconceptions about HIV, the routes and relative risks of transmission and the stigma that stems from these misconceptions.
But one thing California can do immediately is remove the discrimination in the law against people with HIV.
That is what SB 239 is designed to do and that’s why over 100 organizations support the bill, including APLA Health, the Black AIDS Institute, Equality California, Positive Women’s Network-USA, ACLU of California, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), HIV Medicine Association, SF AIDS Foundation, Bienestar, Planned Parenthood of California, Transgender Law Center and Human Rights Watch.
Together, we can make California law on this subject a model for the whole country.