US: It's time to change Missouri HIV criminal statutes and end stigma

Missouri’s HIV criminal statutes are due for an update

AIDS Project of the Ozarks (APO) is a non-profit community-based organization serving a 29-county region in SWMO including over 800 clients with HIV/AIDS and their families. In the early years of the epidemic, with no effective treatment options, an HIV diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.  My friends were dying and that’s why I became involved with this work. Not long after our founding in 1983, Missouri joined a great number of states in enacting strict laws that penalize people living with HIV (PLHIV) for engaging in sexual activity as one method to combat the epidemic.

Thankfully, much has changed in the 36 years since we were founded. With today’s medications, in a matter of months, people living with HIV are suppressing the virus in their bloodstream, rendering it incapable of transmission to another person. The Center for Disease Control confirmed this information in 2017.

Undetectable = untransmittable.

PLHIV are leading long, productive lives without the fear of exposing loved ones to the virus. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and condoms or other latex barriers are viable means of HIV prevention that unaffected partners can use to take control of their own risk of contracting the virus.

Yet, as the law stands in Missouri, if someone living with HIV cannot prove without a doubt that they have disclosed their HIV status to a sexual partner, they may be subject to Class B felony charges – the same as a 2nd-degree murder – even when no transmission of HIV has occurred. An HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, however, our laws continue to treat it as such.

The stigma associated with HIV was built on top of misinformation during the 1980s. When APO started, we didn’t even put our name on the building directory because the fear of the stigma of HIV was an incredible barrier for people seeking testing and treatment. Today, we have a better medical understanding and more people are living longer with HIV. It is time to stop living bound by fear and paralyzed by stigma. As modeled by APO’s newly constructed facility with our large  sign on one of Springfield’s busiest thoroughfares, it is time to come out from the shadows. It is time for our General Assembly to embrace public policy, grounded in today’s medical realities, and modernize HIV-specific criminal codes.

Reps. Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston; HB 167) and Tracy McCreery (D-Olivette; HB 166) have come together in bipartisan collaboration. Public health and HIV are not partisan topics. We applaud the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee for advancing a House Committee Substitute for both bills forward on April 15.

We urge Springfield’s own – Speaker Elijah Haahr – to schedule floor debate time for HCB HB 167 & 166 with ample time for amendments and discussion to resolve several outstanding concerns. We thank both sponsors for their bipartisanship, and we urge the same from their colleagues. The time is now to change the law and end the stigma. To send a message to your representative, visit

APO provides medical care, case management, education to the general public, and services to persons with HIV infection, their families and significant others in a confidential, caring environment. We also offer primary medical care to those who are not HIV positive, in a safe inclusive environment. Our walk-in testing schedule at APO (1636 S Glenstone, Suite 100, Springfield, MO 65804) is Mon, Tues, Thurs, and Friday 9am-Noon and 1-3pm; and at APO Downtown (303 Park Central West) 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays with HIV, Hepatitis C, and syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia testing. Safer-sex supplies are available at both locations.