When law and science part ways: the criminalization of breastfeeding by women living with HIV

The HIV Justice Network (HJN) has been monitoring a disturbing phenomenon — at least 12 women living with HIV have faced criminal prosecution in relation to breastfeeding or comfort nursing.  

In addition, women living with HIV have been threatened with punitive public health processes and child protection interventions for breastfeeding their children in multiple countries.

To bring this important issue to the attention of women’s health experts and advocates, HJN worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners to write a paper for a Special Collection on Women’s Health and HIV for the peer-reviewed, open access journal Therapeutic Advances in Infectious Diseases.     

In “When law and science part ways: the criminalization of breastfeeding by women living with HIV,” published last week, Alison Symington (HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst), Nyasha Chingore-Munazvo (Programmes Lead, AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa) and Svitlana Moroz (Chair of the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS) place the criminalisation of women with HIV for breastfeeding within the context of current medical recommendations and cultural views of breastfeeding. They review the criminal cases against women living with HIV for breastfeeding around the globe, examine the injustice of these prosecutions, and provide recommendations for decriminalisation.

This Special Collection includes papers addressing a wide range of health issues impacting women with HIV. According to lead author Alison Symington, “We felt it was important to submit a paper on breastfeeding and HIV criminalisation because so few people are aware of these horrible cases. Healthcare providers have an important role to play in protecting women from punitive actions and providing them with information and support so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their children.”

To make the paper even more widely accessible, HJN has provided translations into French, Russian and Spanish.

It is HJN’s aim to collaborate with advocates, researchers, service providers, organisations and community members around the world to raise awareness and prevent further unjust prosecutions against women living with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse. We are therefore grateful to both the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Robert Carr Fund for their financial support for this work.

Further resources

Mwayi’s Story is a short film about courage, and about women standing up for their rights. The film is based on a real case in Malawi and the subsequent successful advocacy to prevent an HIV criminalisation statute being passed. The full story of the woman who was prosecuted for briefly breastfeeding another woman’s baby is told in an HJN feature, It Takes More Than A Village to End HIV Criminalisation, by Sally Cameron, based on a report by Peter Gwazayani, Edna Tembo and Charity Mkona.

 

 

Why people living with HIV should not be criminalised for donating blood

Preventing the transmission of blood-borne infection by imposing limitations on the donation of blood is an important and legitimate public health objective.

Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, certain groups – including, but not limited to, gay men and other men who have sex with men – have been subjected to restrictions on their ability to give blood.

Sustained advocacy by gay rights organisations in many high-income countries has focused on the discriminatory nature of these so-called ‘gay blood bans’, highlighting significant advances in blood screening capabilities. This has led to a general softening of restrictions on blood donations for gay men in many of these countries – allowing donations with ‘deferral periods’, or allowing donations based on individual risk assessments.

However, this advocacy has generally not translated into the removal of HIV-specific criminal laws for donating blood, nor has there been a call for a moratorium on singling out people living with HIV for donating blood using non-HIV-specific general criminal laws – even though many of the same public health and human rights arguments apply to both the so-called ‘gay blood bans’ and to HIV criminalisation more generally.

That is why today, the HIV Justice Network has published Bad Blood: Criminalisation of Blood Donations by People Living with HIV. The report was written by Elliot Hatt and edited by Edwin J Bernard, based on research undertaken by Sylvie Beaumont, with additional input provided by Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff and Paul Kidd (HIV Justice Network’s Supervisory Board); Sean Strub (Sero Project) and Robert James (University of Sussex).

We found that 37 jurisdictions in 22 countries maintain laws that criminalise people with HIV for donating blood. Notably, 15 jurisdictions in the United States (US) have laws which specifically criminalise blood donations by people living with HIV, while four US states – California, Illinois, Iowa, and Virginia – have repealed laws which previously criminalised this conduct.

Although prosecutions are relatively rare, we are aware of at least 20 cases relating to blood donation since 1987. Half of these cases have been reported in Singapore, including two as recently as 2021.

We argue that the criminalisation of blood donations by people with HIV is a disproportionate measure – even if the aim of protecting public health through the prevention of transfusion-transmitted infection is legitimate – and is the result of both HIV-related stigma and homophobia. It is not supported by science.

There is no good reason for any country or jurisdiction to have HIV-specific criminal laws – whether they focus on blood donation or on sexual exposure or transmission. HIV-specific criminal laws are discriminatory and stigmatising, especially since people with other serious blood borne infections – including hepatitis B and C and syphilis – are not singled out with specific laws, nor for prosecution under general criminal laws.

Blood donation criminal laws focused on HIV should be repealed, prosecutions based on general laws should end, and instead science-informed measures – such as individual donor risk assessments and universal blood screening – should be relied on to protect the public against transfusion-transmitted infection.

Read the report at: https://www.hivjustice.net/publication/badblood

New report shows how women living with HIV are leading the response against HIV criminalisation in the EECA region

A new report produced by the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS with the Global Network of People Living with HIV on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, illustrates how women living with HIV, who are disproportionally impacted by HIV criminalisation across the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region, have also been the leaders in research, advocacy and activism against it. The report is now available in English after being originally published in Russian in January.

The report illustrates how HIV criminalisation and gender inequality are intimately and inextricably linked. By highlighting prosecution data from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine disaggregated by sex, the report shows how the burden of HIV criminalisation is falling upon women.

The report also includes some heart-breaking personal stories including that of a woman in Russia who was prosecuted for breastfeeding her baby, as well as several women in Russia blackmailed by former partners who threatened to report them for alleged HIV exposure as a way to control, coerce, or abuse them.

The evidence provided in the report clearly demonstrates that HIV criminalisation not only fails to protect women from HIV, but worsens their status in society, making them even more susceptible to violence and structural inequalities due to the way their HIV-positive status is framed by the criminal law.

The report goes on to explore how women living with HIV in the region are vulnerable to a range of economic consequences including loss of property, as well as ostracism and discrimination in their communities, including being separated from their children, because:

  • Women living with HIV’s reproductive and maternal choices are controlled by, and can be abused by, the state.
  • Women living with HIV in partnerships with HIV-negative men can be threatened with prosecution, or be prosecuted, even if there has been prior disclosure and consent to the ‘risk’ and even when condoms were used or the woman had an undetectable viral load.
  • Confidential medical information can be illegally shared with law enforcement agencies.

The report also shows a direct connection between HIV criminalisation and other forms of criminalisation – notably the use and possession of drugs, and of sex work – that exacerbate the burden of discrimination, the violation of rights, and violence experienced by women living with HIV in the region.

Despite the difficult picture painted, the report provides hope, however.

It is the mobilisation of the women’s community and the meaningful participation of HIV-positive women and their allies in advocacy for law reform, rights protections – and in the preparation of alternative reports to UN Committees such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – that are making a real difference in the fight against HIV criminalisation in the region.

Read the report in English or Russian.

Report: End HIV criminalisation to address LGBT+ inequities

A new report published by the Global Equality Caucus examines what elected officials can do to ensure LGBT+ people receive equitable access to HIV healthcare.

The report titled Breaking barriers in HIV: Action for legislators to address LGBT+ inequities, includes ten recommendations for legislators and others to take forward, including repealing or modernising outdated HIV criminalisation laws, and doing more to safeguard health data privacy.

The report notes that HIV criminalisation laws are “out of step with modern scientific understanding and perpetuate outdated HIV stigmas.” Removing such laws would help to tackle prejudice and refocus HIV as a public health crisis.

Also relevant to our ongoing work on molecular HIV surveillance, the report further recommends that where data is collected, anonymity should always be assured, and “this applies to HIV testing, immigration status, or whatever other circumstances that may place LGBT+ people in danger should their health data be shared with other government authorities.”

Parliamentarians have a responsibility to ensure government departments respect the privacy of citizens and that health data is not being shared with agencies that could present additional barriers to the lives of LGBT+ people, such as immigration authorities or justice departments.

Year in review: Celebrating successes, highlighting the many challenges ahead

This past year has shown us what happens when one pandemic –  HIV – is overshadowed by another pandemic, COVID-19.  Despite the many lessons learned from our collective advocacy against HIV criminalisation that we and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners highlighted in March, these lessons were mostly ignored by policymakers around the world.

The result was a series of knee-jerk legal, policy and police responses leading to the overzealous policing of people living with HIV and other key and inadequately served populations already subject to existing inequalities in law and policy, which we have been highlighting in our HIV Justice Weekly newsletter since March.

This latest pandemic overshadowed, and in some cases undermined, the work we and others have been doing to ensure a fair, just, rational and evidence-based response towards people living with HIV by the criminal justice system.

This past year we documented at least 90 cases of unjust HIV criminalisation in 25 countries, with Russia and the United States being the worse offenders.  Women living with HIV were accused in 25% of those cases. Three of these cases were for breastfeeding.  In the United States, more than 50% of those accused in HIV criminalisation cases were people of colour.  

2020 also saw Poland passing a new law against COVID-19 that also increased the criminal penalty for HIV exposure, and number of disappointing HIV criminalisation higher court appeals in the US (Ohio), and Canada (Ontario and Alberta) that appeared to ignore science over stigma.

And yet, despite the many difficulties of 2020, the movement to end unjust HIV criminalisation has continued to gain momentum.

In the United States, Washington State modernised its HIV-specific criminal law in March, reducing the ‘crime’ from a felony to a misdemeanour, adding in a number of defences, and eliminating the sex offender registration requirement.  Earlier this month, legislators in Missouri published plans to modernise its HIV-specific criminal law next year.

In Europe, Sweden abolished the legal requirement to disclose HIV status in March, the Spanish Supreme Court set an important precedent for HIV criminalisation cases in May, and in June, Scottish police ended the stigmatising practice of marking people living with HIV as ‘contagious’ in their database.

In Francophone Africa, HIV-specific criminal law reform in Benin and across the region is looking likely thanks to a recognition that existing laws do not reflect up-to-date science.

And in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a process to completely abolish the draconian HIV-specific criminal law in Belarus has begun.

There is still so much more to do, however.  Despite these successes, as well as the many milestones the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE movement has achieved since its launch in 2016, we will not rest until everyone living with HIV in all their diversity is treated equally, fairly and justly by all actors of the criminal justice system.

Watch all the videos of Beyond Blame @HIV2020 – our “perfectly executed…deftly curated, deeply informative” webshow

Earlier this month, advocates from all over the world came together for two hours to discuss the successes and challenges of the global movement to end HIV criminalisation.

All of the recordings of Beyond Blame: Challenging HIV Criminalisation for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE are now available on the HIV Justice Network’s YouTube Channel.

“HUGE pleasure 2B at #BeyondBlame2020 conference – deftly curated, deeply informative; speakers were great; the passion & commitment to #HIVjustice was palpable. Much progress yet a sober reminder that the work is far from over.”

Kene Esom, Policy Specialist: Human Rights, Law and Gender, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

 

The full-length director’s cut version – with enhanced audio and video – is now available in English as well as with the audio track of the recorded simultaneous translation in French, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.

The English version is also available as a YouTube playlist in ‘bite-size’ chunks, with each segment of the webshow available as standalone videos.  This means, for example, if you just want to watch (or share) the segment on ‘women challenging HIV criminalisation in Africa‘, or on ‘bringing science to justice, and justice to science‘, it’s now possible.

“That webinar was perfectly executed. Great sound, engaging transitions (they actually played people on and off!), and multiple speakers in various collections. Having ALL OF THEM back at the end showed the breadth of this technical accomplishment and the depth of the speakers’ field of expertise. Not everyone may notice these things but boy, I sure do, and it was totally pro. I’ve seen big name conferences who couldn’t get this right… Congratulations all around, and especially to [director] Nicholas Feustel.

Mark S King, My Fabulous Disease

 

We have also made available for the first time the standalone recording of Edwin Cameron’s closing speech, which inspired so many.  The transcript is included in full below.

“We have been being battling this fight for many years. Since the start of the HIV epidemic we as gay men, as gay women, as queers, as transgender people, as sex workers, as people using drugs, have been persecuted by the criminal law. And I’m here to say, “Enough! Enough!

We have achieved a great deal with our movement, with the HIV Justice Network. We have achieved a great deal in conscientizing law makers, law givers and the public. It is now time for us to join in unison to demand the end of these stigmatising, retrograde, unproductive, hurtful, harmful laws.

It is a long struggle we’ve engaged in. And it’s one that has hurt many of us. Some of us here today, some of us listening in, some of us who have spoken, have felt the most brutal brush of the law. They have been imprisoned, unjustly prosecuted, unjustly convicted, and unjustly sent away.

HIV is not a crime. But there is more to it. Criminalising HIV, criminalising the transmission or exposure of HIV, as many countries on my own beautiful continent Africa do, is not just stupid and retrograde. It impedes the most important message of the HIV epidemic now, which is that this epidemic is manageable. I’ve been on antiretroviral treatment now for very nearly 23 years. My viral load has been undetectable for more than 20.

We can beat this, but we have to approach this issue as public health issue. We have to approach it rationally and sensibly, and without stigma, and without targeting people, and without seeking to hurt and marginalise people.We’ve made calamitous mistakes with the misapplication of the criminal law over the last hundred years, in the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We continue to make a calamitous mistake in Africa and elsewhere by misusing the criminal law against queer people like myself. We make a huge mistake by misusing the criminal law against people with HIV.

Let us rise today and say, “Enough!”

 

How is the Expert Consensus Statement bringing science to justice?

Two years ago this month saw the launch of the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law (Expert Consensus Statement) at a press conference during AIDS2018 in Amsterdam, published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society (JIAS), and translated into French, Russian and Spanish.

Authored by 20 of the world’s leading HIV scientists, and endorsed by more than 70 additional expert scientists, as well as IAPAC, IAS and UNAIDS, the Expert Consensus Statement described current evidence on HIV transmission, treatment effectiveness and forensics so that HIV-related science may be better understood in criminal law contexts.

The Expert Consensus Statement was the end result of a multi-year process developed by a partnership comprising the International AIDS Society (IAS), the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee.

The HIV Justice Network has now published an interim scoping report, written by HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst Sally Cameron, that explores the impact of the Expert Consensus Statement in the two years since its publication.  It is now available in English and French (see bottom of page for download links).

The report concludes that the Expert Consensus Statement is meeting both its primary aim (to support defence arguments in HIV criminalisation cases) and its secondary aim (supporting lobbying for law and policy reform) in many jurisdictions. But it also found that the process of developing and promoting the content of the Expert Consensus Statement has delivered additional benefits that further support advocacy efforts to end HIV criminalisation.

In summary, the Expert Consensus Statement is being used to:

  • Assist HIV criminalisation defence arguments and strategic litigation, changing courts’ understanding of transmission risks associated with HIV and the effectiveness of modern treatments.
  • Shape advocacy for law and policy reform, including mobilising stakeholders to lobby for reform, delivering law and policy reform, improving legal and judicial practice, facilitating community advocates’ access to government and judicial bodies, and gaining support from public health bodies and customary and religious leaders.
  • Inform scientific and medical thinking, including being cited in many peer reviewed articles and in scientific and medical press, being hosted on the sites of scientific/medical/academic organisations, and being ranked the #1 JIAS article to date.
  • Develop stronger relationships that cross silos and advance capacity, enabling efficient and informal communications between partners to rapidly move projects forward, with Expert Consensus Statement authors supporting community organisations by assisting in defence cases, answering ad hoc questions and co-authoring abstracts, presentations and articles.
  • Disseminate accurate, positive messages about people living HIV and the issue of HIV criminalisation, including facilitating keynote addresses and presentations at notable conferences and meetings, and generating global mainstream, community and social media. Ultimately, interest in the Expert Consensus Statement has elevated the global conversation about HIV criminalisation, with co-ordinated messaging translating into a powerful positive narrative in many sites.