Denmark: Justice Minister suspends HIV-specific criminal law, sets up working group

Denmark’s Justice Minister Lars Barfoed has today suspended Article 252 of the Criminal Code – the so-called ‘HIV law’ – pending an inquiry by a government working group to consider whether the only HIV-specific law in Western Europe should be revised or abolished.

The move was announced today in a press release by AIDS-Fondet (AIDS Foundation) and covered in the gay magazine, Out and About. (Both of these are in Danish, and so I’m relying primarily on Google Translate, although colleagues in Denmark have also been in touch to tell me the exciting news.)

Denmark prosecuted its first case in 1993, but the Supreme Court found in 1994 that the wording of the existing law (“wantonly or recklessly endangering life or physical ability”) did not provide a clear legal base for conviction. The phrase “fatal and incurable disease” was added in 1994, and HIV was specified in 2001.

According GNP+’s Global Criminalisation Scan here have been at least 18 prosecutions: at least one failed due to the accused committing suicide. At least ten involved non-Danish nationals, including seven people of African origin. At least eleven convictions for either sexual HIV exposure or transmission are reported. The maximum prison sentence is eight years.  

Today’s announcement came about as a result of a Parliamentary question from opposition Unity MP, Per Clausen on behalf of the Parliamentary Legal Committee.

“The Minister should state whether the Ministry [of Justice] will consider changing or eliminating the special clause in the legislation that criminalises [HIV-positive individuals for] unprotected sex with uninfected [individuals] in light of the significantly improved treatment options for HIV-positive people, in particular since treatment is able to reduce the risk of infection to [near] zero.”

In his reply, Justice Minister Lars Barfoed explains the history of the legislation and then quotes the Health Protection Agency about HIV ‘risk’ and ‘harm’.

 “Modern combination therapy reduces HIV in the blood by more than 99% during the first weeks of treatment, whereby patients’ general condition improves. The strongly reduced amount of HIV in blood and tissue fluids also greatly reduces the risk of transmission from an HIV-positive person on antiviral therapy. This greatly reduced risk is difficult to quantify but considering the risk to be near zero is a theory that some doctors have put forward, but there is no national or international consensus that about this…The life-expectancy of someone with HIV is no different from the age- and gender-matched background population. HIV is, in other words, not in itself fatal if treated in time; medication taken regularly; and there are otherwise no complications from other diseases, etc. Timely treatment is now so effective and well tolerated, that 85-90% of patients can live normal lives if they take their medication daily. It is the 5-10% of patients who are diagnosed late who still experience a substantial excess mortality and morbidity. [However] HIV is still incurable.”

He goes on to say that the law as it is currently written – casting HIV as a life-threatening condition and criminalising unprotected sex by a person with HIV – appears to be obsolete and that the working group must consider whether to amend, or totally rewrite, Article 252.

The working group will comprise Justice Minister Barfoed and Interior Affairs and Health Minister Bertel Haarder with representatives from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Health, the Health Protection Agency and the Prosecutor General.  It is believed they will come to a conclusion later this year. (Update Feb 22: My contact at AIDS-Fondet tells me this process will take place much sooner, within the next two months.)

In their press release AIDS-Fondet notes that it has been working on changing the law for years and so this development is very welcome.

We hope this suspension is the beginning of the end of the so-called HIV Criminal Law. This criminal provision is in itself a barrier to prevention, and there has also long been a need for the improved treatment of HIV-people to be reflected in the Penal Code, says Henriette Laursen, AIDS-Fondet’s director.

Two of Denmark’s foremost HIV experts, Professor Jens Lundgren and Professor Jens Skinhøj, have previously called for the law’s abolition.