US: Oklahoma looking at additional criminalisation of sexually transmitted infections

Oklahoma lawmakers want to criminalize spread of genital herpes, chlamydia, HPV and other STDs

Critics say bill will deter people from getting the necessary testing and treatment, which will increase the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Oklahoma lawmakers are seeking to criminalize the spread of several more sexually transmitted diseases, a move critics say could turn nearly every resident into a felon.

House Bill 3098 adds chlamydia, Hepatitis B, genital herpes, trichomoniasis, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infections to the list of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that are illegal to knowingly or recklessly spread.

Anyone who does so would be guilty of a felony and could face between two and five years in prison. Previously only smallpox, syphilis and gonorrhea were on the list.

Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin, the bill’s House author, said she’s been studying domestic abuse. She said she heard from women who said men had knowingly infected them with several of the diseases.

Some of the STDs cause infertility, liver damage and miscarriage, Hasenbeck said.

“This particular piece of legislation is about putting a man in jail who chooses to knowingly and willfully infect a woman with a sexually transmitted disease,” Hasenbeck said.

She said the measure is not designed to impede any health or outreach efforts designed to stem the spread of STIs. Health experts said Oklahoma ranks No. 11 for rates of chlamydia and in the top five for gonorrhea and syphilis transmission.

“I’m not judge, jury and executioner,” Hasenbeck said recently as Democratic lawmakers peppered her with questions about the proposed criminalization expansion. “I’m a lawmaker, and we had a hole in our statute that I am trying to repair to protect Oklahomans.”

She said her measure could encourage people to get testing and treatment, or to practice abstinence if they’re “that worried about going to jail.”

But Jeff Burdge fears the bill would do the opposite.

The bill will deter people from getting the necessary testing and treatment, which is going to increase the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because of fears that positive tests could open someone up to prosecution, said Burdge, a spokesman for H.O.P.E. Testing, a Tulsa-based nonprofit that provides education and low-cost testing for infectious sexual diseases.

He said 87% of Oklahomans will contract HPV in their lifetime, he said. No test exists to diagnose it in men, he said.

“That’s a bill that would potentially turn nearly every Oklahoman into a felon,” he said.

He said the bill doesn’t define “reckless,” opening the door to unnecessary prosecutions.

“Many Oklahomans aren’t even aware of what STIs are or how to best prevent them and what resources are available out there,” he said. “It’s not a good bill. Not well written. It’s not going to be good for the state.”

But he said the measure is part of a broader national trend attacking sexual health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 34 states had criminalized HIV or STD exposure in 2023. Laws targeting HIV transmission are often outdated and increase stigma and may discourage testing, the agency reported.

Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, questioned why lawmakers are looking at additional criminalization instead of increasing access to health care or funding science-based research.

“You think the solution to that is criminalization, is putting people in prison, not making sure that we destigmatize health care so folks get access to it,” Turner said.

The measure cleared the House and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

Criminalizing people did not work to stop HIV transmission, and it will not decrease STIs.

Opinion piece from Taryn Norman and Nathan Cisneros – The Oklahoman – 21 April 2024

In 2022, over 30,000 Oklahomans — young and old, in cities and rural communities — received a sexually transmitted infection (STI) diagnosis. Most STIs are common and easily treatable. Yet, Oklahoma is just one vote away from criminalizing the transmission of the most common STIs, including chlamydia, human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes. People found guilty face two to five years in prison.

Criminalizing people did not work to stop HIV transmission, and it will not work if we expand it to STIs. As experts in public health and HIV, we call on Oklahoma lawmakers to learn from the data and the history of criminalizing STIs. House Bill 3098 will likely increase transmissions and decrease testing — exactly the opposite of the bill’s intent.

Every year, Health Outreach Prevention Education (HOPE) in Tulsa provides critical sexually transmitted infections testing and treatment for thousands of Oklahomans. The need is great because STIs are very common. For example, an estimated 85% of people will contract HPV in their lifetime. But we do not have a reliable test for HPV in cisgender men, which means the new law could only criminalize women — the group at highest risk for HPV-related cancers. (Fortunately, we have a vaccine for all youth that can provide good protection against the most common forms of HPV.)

We know where the criminalization of STIs leads. HIV criminal laws have increased fear and stigma and can decrease testing and treatment. This fear is often summarized as “Take the test, risk arrest.” But it gets worse. A felony conviction means a person can be barred from holding public office. They can be denied jobs or housing and lose access to social services. And Black people are disproportionately likely to be criminalized because of their HIV status.

Learning from past legislation

Oklahoma’s HIV criminal law has not prevented one of the highest rates of new rural HIV diagnoses in the country. Rates of late testing for HIV in Oklahomans are also high. Fortunately, today, HIV is now a manageable, treatable chronic disease, but only if people can access testing and treatment.

For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association, National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD), National Association of County & City Health Officials (NACCHO), U.S. Conference of Mayors, the U.S. Department of Justice, and many other organizations have all called for states to repeal or reform their HIV-related criminal laws.

Criminalizing STIs is also expensive. Oklahoma already has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, and the state spends $28,500 annually for every person incarcerated. Compare that to the cost of under $200 to treat many of the STIs HB 3098 seeks to criminalize. Those resources would be better spent on health care, including STI prevention, testing and treatment.

The Legislature’s goal should be creating healthier communities by removing barriers to prevention, testing and treatment for Oklahomans. Health care, not punishment, is the answer to treating and reducing the spread of STIs. Smart policies and investments in community health can help ensure we all have the health care we need, no matter who we are or where we live.

Taryn Norman is the executive director of Health Outreach Prevention Education Inc. (HOPE) in Tulsa. Nathan Cisneros is the HIV criminalization project director at the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.