Criminalizing HIV: Recent Experience in the United States and Africa to Update Laws and Policies to Promote the Public Health
1 O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University, Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Laws and policies have been used to protect people living with HIV and affected communities from stigma and discrimination. Indeed, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are just two legal instruments that help to create environments where people feel safe enough to come forward for HIV testing and to engage in care. Laws and policies also are used in ways that are highly stigmatizing and that hinder public health approaches to responding to HIV. In the United States, thirty-four states and territories have laws that criminalize the conduct of people living with HIV based on perceived exposure to HIV and without any evidence of intent to do harm. Far from representing a legacy of the past, people with HIV continue to be prosecuted and jailed for failure to disclose their HIV status prior to engaging in sex and for spitting and biting offenses, often in the context of arrest by law enforcement. Moreover, this is a challenge in countries across the globe. As of 2013, twenty-six African countries had overly broad and/ or vague HIV-specific criminal laws, most enacted over the past decade, with a further three countries considering new HIV-specific criminal laws. As governments, clinicians, researchers, and advocates seek to maximize population-level HIV viral suppression both to protect the health of people with HIV and also to reduce HIV transmission, these laws and policies could hinder our collective efforts. This talk will examine the current landscape of HIV criminal laws and policies in the US and selected African countries, will examine available data on the effectiveness of such laws at deterring behaviors such as failure to disclose HIV status prior to sexual encounters, and will look for common lessons from both Africa and the US to suggest a path forward for promoting effective evidence-based approaches to reducing HIV transmission.