US: Maryland lawmakers sponsor bill aiming to repeal HIV criminalisation law

Commentary: Maryland must stop criminalizing people living with HIV

State lawmakers moving to repeal law that stigmatizes people living with HIV, increases public health risk

Having a virus should not be a crime. Yet, in Maryland, people living with HIV can face prosecution and criminal penalties even when we have disclosed our status, used condoms or are virally suppressed through medication. Maryland has an outdated law from 1989 that makes it a misdemeanor for a person living with HIV who is aware of their HIV-positive status to “knowingly transfer or attempt to transfer” HIV to another person. A conviction under this law can carry a punishment of up to three years in prison, and the law has been used to charge people for behaviors that do not transmit HIV, such as spitting and biting.

As people who have lived with HIV for decades, we know firsthand that Maryland’s HIV criminalization law discourages people from knowing their status, fosters stigma and creates barriers to lifesaving health care. It’s time for lawmakers to repeal this deeply unjust law.

Legislation (HB 485/SB 1165) sponsored by Del. Kris Fair (D) and Sen. Sen. Karen Lewis Young (D), both from Frederick County, aims to repeal this law that punishes people living with HIV. It is a law enforced on deeply racist lines. A recent analysis by the Williams Institute revealed our HIV criminalization law is used disproportionately against Black Marylanders and Black men in particular, driving increased incarceration rates and fostering stigma and shame around HIV and knowing one’s status. People living with HIV need health care, not the threat of prison cells.

This law was passed 35 years ago, when little was known about the virus. If that seems long ago, it was: George H.W. Bush was president, cellphones were the size of bricks, and Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul topped the music charts. At that time, there was little hope for people living with HIV. Thankfully, much has changed since then.

Today, we are just some of the many people with HIV who are living long and fulfilling lives. Those of us living with HIV who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load — the amount of HIV in our blood — by taking medication as prescribed cannot sexually transmit HIV to our partners. Furthermore, people who don’t have HIV have even more effective prevention tools and can take medications such as PrEP and PEP. All of these advancements were unheard of in 1989, when lawmakers responded with fear by criminalizing HIV.

If you are surprised to learn about the incredible medical advancements in the treatment and prevention of HIV, you are not alone. Stigma and racism around the virus run so deep that many people have an outdated understanding of HIV. In fact, today our goal of ending the epidemic of HIV is achievable in the coming years if we focus on expanding access to testing, prevention and treatment.

All of us should know our HIV status, but stigma, lack of access to health care and fear of criminal penalties under Maryland law are barriers to testing for many. Our state laws and policies should remove barriers to health care and encourage Marylanders to know their status. The compounding tragedy of our HIV criminalization law is it deters people from seeking testing and treatment, thus prolonging the HIV epidemic and its toll on our communities.

Repealing the HIV criminalization law would make it safer for people unknowingly living with HIV to get tested and access needed treatment. Nationally, a recent study showed that approximately 80% of new HIV transmissions were from people who do not know their HIV status or are not receiving regular care. Expanding access to testing could have a profound effect in our state. The Maryland Department of Health estimates over 34% of young people living with HIV in the state remain undiagnosed. It is clear we cannot meet our public health goals without repealing this law.

As community caretakers in the movement, we are committed to doing everything we can to reduce stigma around HIV and increase access to care for all Marylanders. For years, we have joined other people living with HIV to share our personal stories with legislators in support of updating our law. HIV is preventable and treatable, and we hope one day to end the epidemic. However, to achieve that goal, we must first end the criminalization of HIV in the state we call home. Removing harmful, stigmatizing criminal punishments for knowing your HIV status is a commonsense update that is long overdue for the great state of Maryland.


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