US: Ohio HIV laws are antiquated, unscientific and harmful

Ohio groups push to change HIV notification laws

Some health and advocacy groups say Ohio has woefully antiquated and unjust HIV laws that harshly penalize safe sexual behaviors, increase stigma and discourage at-risk people from getting tested and treatment.

Ohio law requires people who know they tested positive for HIV to notify sexual partners of this prior to engaging in sexual conduct.

Failure to disclose this information can lead to felonious assault charges. Last month, a Dayton man, X, was indicted for allegedly engaging in sexual conduct without telling the other party he has HIV.

But the case has drawn the attention of organizations and advocates who say the state’s HIV laws are unscientific and harmful and don’t recognize that many Ohioans with HIV are not infectious.

“The laws stigmatize people living with HIV, punishing them for engaging in safe behavior, and the fear of prosecution makes it harder to get life-saving medical and mental health care,” said Kim Welter, director of finance and policy with Equality Ohio.

A spokesperson for the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office said he could not comment on the case since it is pending.

Last month, X, 50, was indicted for felonious assault and possessing criminal tools in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court.

Dayton police say X unlawfully failed to disclose he tested positive for HIV before engaging in sexual conduct. Police say he may have had sexual encounters with other people without properly notifying them first.

Ohio is one of about 31 states that have laws criminalizing HIV exposure, according to the CDC.

The Buckeye State and about 20 other states require people with HIV who are aware of their status to disclose it to sexual partners, the agency said.

But the CDC says many state HIV laws are outdated and criminalize behaviors that cannot transmit HIV, and they also can discourage HIV testing, increase stigma and exacerbate disparities.

People with HIV who take HIV medicine called antiretroviral therapy can reduce the amount of HIV in their blood (called the viral load) to undetectable levels, the CDC says.

The agency says there is effectively no risk of transmitting HIV when someone has an undetectable viral load.

People at risk of being exposed to HIV also can use pre-exposure prophylaxis medication (called PrEP), which if taken every day is 99% effective at preventing people from getting HIV from sex, the CDC says.

Ohio needs to modernize its HIV laws to reduce stigma and truly be grounded in science, because HIV is not a death sentence or a crime ― it is a manageable condition and should be treated that way, said Zach McCune, public policy and civic engagement manager with Equitas Health, a nonprofit that serves the health care needs of LGBTQ+ people in more than a dozen Midwest cities, including Dayton.

Ohio’s HIV-related criminal laws were passed more than 20 years ago and even then they were rooted in fear, ignorance, stigma and bias toward people living with HIV, McCune said.

McCune said Equitas Health has spent more than a year working with other advocacy groups and people living with HIV to help draft legislation to change Ohio’s HIV laws.

The Ohio Health Modernization Movement is leading the effort to change state law. The movement is a coalition of partners including Equality Ohio, Equitas Health, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and others.

McCune said their main goal is to reduce the criminal penalty for failing to notify of positive HIV status from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The proposed legislation also would make failing to disclose HIV status a crime only if the virus is actually transmitted and if there was deliberate intent to cause harm, McCune said.

“We’re hopeful we can introduce this legislation this year,” he said.

Some other states, like California, have taken steps to reduce criminal penalties for knowingly exposing sexual partners to HIV.