Legislation introduced recently would expand federal programs to review and seek to end policies and laws that criminalize the transmission of HIV and lead to our sources of discrimination against HIV+ people. On Monday, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the “Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal (“REPEAL”) HIV Discrimination Act,” which would require an interagency review of federal and state laws that criminalize certain actions by people living with HIV. It is companion legislation to a bill introduced this summer by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), a champion of HIV/AIDS issues in the Congress.
Activist and advocates say that the legislation is urgently needed since 32 states have laws that in various ways use a person’s HIV status to help with criminal convictions. The laws date back to the passage in 1990 of the Ryan White CARE Act, the first national response to the AIDS epidemic. The Care Act included a requirement that states criminalize the transmission of HIV as a pre-condition for receiving funding. Less than half of the states and territories have subsequently repealed those provisions (no longer required to receive Ryan White funds). Senator Coons said, “There are places in this country where state and local laws make it similar to assault with a deadly weapon for somebody with HIV/AIDS to spit on someone, for example. That’s based on an outdated unscientific fear that fed lots of discrimination.” The Center for HIV Law and Policy completed a study showing that in the past two years, there have been 80 know prosecutions “in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting.” Recent passage of the HOPE Act, bi-partisan bill that allowed organ donations among HIV+ people, has given congressional sponsors and activists encouragement that the REPEAL Act can be passed and sent to the President for signature. The HOPE Act passed by unanimous consent in both chambers.