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Some Push To Change State Laws Requiring HIV Disclosure To Sexual Partners


In more than 30 states, it is illegal for someone with HIV to have sex without first disclosing their status. Some are now pushing to change that, arguing that the laws are actually endangering public health. From member station WOSU, Paige Pfleger reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: More than 1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, and their HIV status could conceivably put them behind bars. Take the case of Michael Holder.

MICHAEL HOLDER: I served 8 1/2 years in prison and three years after on parole.

PFLEGER: Back in 2000, Holder's ex-girlfriend testified that he didn't disclose his HIV status before they had sex. That's a crime in Michigan and in most states in the country.

HOLDER: The next day, she came in, and she took the stand again. And she testified the truth and said that she had lied and said that she was jealous, and she loved me and that I had told her just like I had testified and said I'd told her. And she told the truth, but it was too late.

PFLEGER: But Holder couldn't prove that he told her. Public health experts say that's one of many problems with HIV criminalization laws. Ohio, Tennessee and Florida alone charged more than 120 people in the last decade.

DAPHNE KACKLOUDIS: Would you want to have to disclose your sexual practices and your personal health in front of a medical professional and your partner?

PFLEGER: Daphne Kackloudis is with the Ohio Health Modernization Movement, a group of public health experts pushing to change Ohio's 1999 statute.

KACKLOUDIS: A lot has happened since 1999, and lawmakers don't necessarily know that. And let's be honest. A lot of citizens, you know, who aren't lawmakers don't know the advances that have been made in science and the reasons that we believe this law should be modernized.

PFLEGER: Advances like treatment, which helped turn HIV from a fatal infection into a manageable chronic condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back that up. If a person takes medication to make their HIV undetectable, they pose little risk of passing the virus to a partner. The American Medical Association takes it a step further, calling for the total repeal of HIV criminalization laws. That sparked action for reforms in states like Washington, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee and Florida. Jada Hicks is with the New York-based Center for HIV Law and Policy. She says it's long overdue.

JADA HICKS: The data doesn't support that any of these laws that criminalize HIV actually decrease transmission rates.

PFLEGER: And in some places, it's worked. California, Iowa and Michigan recently reformed their laws. Ohio's statute has been challenged multiple times since it was introduced. In a 2017 Supreme Court of Ohio case, lawyer Samuel Peterson, with the solicitor general's office, defended the law on behalf of the state.


SAMUEL PETERSON: When you have sexual conduct, there are two parties to that conduct. And the other person has a right to know and has a right to be party to the decision to engage in the sexual conduct.

PFLEGER: Kackloudis says she understands that argument, but that's only one part of the legal puzzle.

KACKLOUDIS: We would never want someone who intentionally transmits HIV to not be able to be prosecuted under the statute. We think that's not right.

PFLEGER: But she says, as it's written, the law puts the burden on people like Michael Holder to prove that they disclosed. She fears these laws, which intended to stop the spread of HIV, may actually be doing just the opposite, disincentivizing people to know their status in the first place.

HOLDER: If they didn't have the law, more people would come in and get tested, you know, because they wouldn't have to risk having done to them what was done to me.

PFLEGER: According to the CDC, 1 in 7 people with HIV don't even know they have the virus.

For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF EBB AND FLOD'S "OCTOBER SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Pfleger