What: AIDSWatch in Georgia 2018: HIV Advocacy at the Gold Dome
When: Thursday, February 8, 2018 8:30am – 12:00pm
Where: Coverdell Legislative Office Building (18 Capitol Square SW, Atlanta, GA 30334, exact room TBD) We will meet for a brief recap/mini-training at 9am, have coffee and light breakfast, then head across the street to the Capitol to speak with our legislators.
Why: Over 54,000 people living with HIV live, work and thrive in every legislative district across our state, but many state lawmakers are unaware of the issues that affect our diverse communities. This event will provide attendees with an opportunity to talk one-on-one with their representative in the House and Senate (don’t know who your legislators are? No problem- click here!!!). We will educate elected officials on issues like HIV criminalization, HIV education, HIV prevention/care funding, healthcare access, LGBTQ rights, racial justice and reproductive justice.
Parking: Public parking is available in several locations surrounding the Capitol. Parking fees vary by lot. The following lots are open to the public:
Steve Polk Plaza Parking is located on M.L. King, Jr., Drive, one block from the Capitol
A surface lot is located on Memorial Drive, one block from the Capitol
Underground parking: A parking garage is located on the north side of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, two blocks from the Capitol
Bring with you: IMPORTANT! All adults must show a photo ID upon entering the Capitol. Note that you must enter the Capitol through a metal detector and the X-ray machine will examine hand-carried items. No weapons, including pocketknives, are allowed in the Capitol.
Attire: Business attire is typical at the Capitol, and it is what our legislators wear. However, please do not let attire be a barrier to attending this event. We are not here for respectability politics!
Accessibility: For our training the night before, we will be at the Phillip Rush Center, which is wheelchair accessible via ramp. The morning of the following day, we will be in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building (CLOB). The public entrance to the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building is accessible via a ramp located in the front of the building, off of Capitol Square, adjacent to the main entrance. The building is open from 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, except for state holidays. Participants needing wheelchair and/or ramp access can click here for a more comprehensive guide to accessing the Capitol and Coverdell Legislative Office Building.
Contact: If you have questions about this event, please contact Eric Paulk at Eric (at) GeorgiaEquality (dot) org
Nina Martinez moved to Georgia from Washington, D.C., in 2005. Just a few months after she settled into her new Atlanta home, she learned about Georgia’s criminal laws regarding people disclosing their HIV status to others. It personally changed things for her.
“As a person living with HIV, I didn’t even form relationships because I didn’t want someone who was just mad at me, who said, “ ‘She didn’t tell me she was HIV-positive,’” said Martinez. “I haven’t minded being single for the last 12 years or so, but it’s not necessarily by choice, I guess.”
The Georgia laws that Martinez is referring to are almost 30 years old. They state that people with HIV can serve jail time for not disclosing their HIV status to others in certain situations. Those situations include having sex with someone; sharing a needle; performing paid sex work; or donating blood, body fluids, body organs or body parts. People with HIV can be imprisoned for up to 10 years for any of these violations.
The sentence goes up to 20 years of prison time (and no less than five years) for a person with HIV to put their body fluids on a peace office or a correctional officer, while the officer is on duty. This includes the acts of biting, spitting or throwing bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal secretions, saliva, urine and feces.
Numerous other states also have such laws, and their purpose is obvious: to prevent people from deliberately infecting others with HIV. There have been cases of people doing so.
But with improved understanding of HIV transmission, and scientific strides that have made infection less deadly, critics say the laws are largely outdated.
Martinez says the current Georgia laws are unfair because they allow prosecution of people who did not intend to transmit the disease, and even people who had taken precautions against transmission, like using condoms or taking HIV medication. And she says the disclosure laws create a “he said, she said” situation, because it’s hard to prove what people in an intimate relationship communicated to each other.
“This law does not allow me to provide a good defense for myself against cases where somebody might falsely accuse me of not disclosing,” said Martinez. “It doesn’t require that I actually harm someone for me to be prosecuted. And that’s not right.”
“I just want the ability to be able to have somebody else be legally responsible for their own health,” Martinez continued. “Like why am I legally responsible?”
A movement to change HIV laws has been under way for some time. Martinez is one of the steering members of the Georgia Coalition to End HIV Criminalization, an advocacy group.
The coalition would like to see several changes to Georgia’s current code. One of those changes would be a requirement that a person be prosecuted only if there’s proof of intent to transmit HIV.
“Another thing that we want to see is to get these laws aligned with science,” said Sequoia Ayala, a lawyer and policy fellow at Sister Love, and a member of the Georgia Coalition.
The CDC has stated that the risk of transmission of HIV from biting, spitting or throwing fluids is negligible. Because of this, the coalition wants to see that section of the law removed. Assaults with bodily fluids would still be illegal, but the offender’s HIV status would not be relevant.
The current statute does not consider any measure a person with HIV has taken to prevent the risk of transmission. This includes the use of a condom or adherence to an antiretroviral medication regimen.
“We know now that if an individual has access to their medication, and they have taken the medication, and have achieved a viral load of less than 200 copies, they’re unable to transmit HIV via sex,” said Ayala. “And yet the reality is that an individual being adherent to their drugs does not relieve them of any culpability.”
After several years of discussion with the coalition, the Georgia Legislature is now considering the issue. In the spring, Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), four other House representatives and four members of the medical community formed a study committee focused on addressing barriers to adequate health care in Georgia.
The House study committee met in mid-October to discuss HIV laws, and recently released a final report. Possible changes, in line with the coalition’s goals, and best practice recommendations released in 2014 by the U.S. Justice Department were outlined in the final report.
The changes include removing most HIV-specific criminal penalties. But penalties would remain in the following situations: If an HIV-positive person commits a sexual assault where there is a risk of transmission, or when a person is aware of being HIV-positive and intends to transmit the virus, and there is a significant risk of transmission.
The final report said that if people with HIV are taking medication, they should be able to present that as a defense in an HIV criminal case.
Though the committee recommended significant changes to the law, no immediate action was outlined. In fact, Cooper told one of the presenters at the October study committee meeting not to expect any changes in Georgia’s HIV criminal law in the next year.
“There is a time for everything,” said Cooper. “And next year’s session is probably going to be really, really short. Probably not the time to introduce any new legislation on certain things. But certainly this is information to look forward to.”
A mixed picture nationally
According to 2017 statistics from a national advocacy organization, the Center for HIV Law and Policy, 34 states have HIV-specific criminal laws. In six of those states, people who are convicted under the law are required to register as sex offenders. Over the past nine years, 303 people with HIV have either been arrested or charged under these laws.
In Georgia, at least 12 people have received lengthy prison sentences for not disclosing their HIV status. Other recent news stories of alleged reckless conduct by people with HIV may add more to that list. The coalition says these cases “required characterizing otherwise normal and legal behavior as criminal for no reason other than the defendant’s HIV status.”
Several states have been re-evaluating their HIV criminal laws. Texas repealed its statutes in 1994. Illinois revised its laws in 2012, and Iowa passed revisions in 2014.
In 2016, Colorado repealed two of its HIV criminal laws and changed language in other statutes to regard HIV like other sexually transmitted diseases. In October, California changed exposing someone to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor, treating the virus like other STDs under the law.
Every state in the Southeast except Alabama has criminal laws related to HIV. Right now, Florida and Georgia seem to be the only two states in the region that are looking at changes. In May, the Florida Legislature considered changing HIV-related felonies to misdemeanors. It failed in the Senate, but legislators will likely re-introduce it next year.
And now Georgia has the study committee’s recommendations.
Rep. David Dreyer (D-Atlanta), who was not a member of the House study committee, is firmly for changing the HIV laws. But he thinks just as Rep. Cooper predicted, real action may take some time.
“I think these [laws] were enacted when people were afraid of HIV. When the science might not have been in on how HIV gets transmitted. And it was just a reaction out of fear, rather than science,” said Dreyer. “But these things do take a few years,” said Dreyer. “And this issue is going to be important in policy circles for years to come.”
Martinez is determined to keep fighting for reform, even if it takes years.
“Our HIV criminal laws don’t even fit the attributes of traditional criminal laws. Criminal law says you have to have intent to harm and you acted in a way that made harm likely,” said Martinez. “Our current Georgia law does not require intent to transmit or actual transmission. It literally only requires that you didn’t say something you should have said.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last month making California the fourth state to revise criminal laws regarding HIV exposure.
Medical studies say there is effectively no risk of transmitting HIV while taking current drug regimens.
Advocates are pushing states across the country to reevaluate HIV criminal laws.
In six U.S. states, individuals living with HIV who are found guilty of knowingly exposing a partner are required to be registered as a sex offender. They can face felony charges, or felony-level punishments, in 32 states.
But as breakthrough HIV drug treatments and medical studies show there is essentially no risk of sexually exposing someone to HIV while taking antiretroviral drug therapy (ART), states are being forced to play catch-up to the science, and stigma, of the AIDS virus.
There are 1.1 million people living with HIV in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2003 and 2013, ProPublica reported (in the most recent data available) 2,352 records of HIV-related charges, with at least 541 convictions or guilty pleas.
“It’s not easy to get people to agree with science,” said Bruce Richman, executive director at the Prevention Access Campaign, an organization that seeks to provide the public with accurate information about HIV exposure. “It conflicts with their long, deeply held beliefs about transmission risks.”
Last month Gov. Jerry Brown signed bill SB 239, making California the fourth state to rewrite HIV exposure laws that were enacted in the 1990s during the AIDS epidemic. Before the legislative reform, a person living with HIV who violated the California law could spend eight years in prison, with additional time if the person was a sex worker. The punishment resembled a typical sentence for voluntary manslaughter — three, six or 11 years in prison.
The bill reduced charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, with maximum sentencing in a county jail now set at six months, and is no longer HIV-specific but includes other communicable diseases, such as hepatitis. Anyone who intentionally attempts to transmit a disease without success will be charged with a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 90 days.
While the bill passed in the California Assembly 44-13, not all legislators agreed with the decision.
“I’m of the mind that if you purposefully inflict another with a disease that alters their lifestyle the rest of their life, puts them on a regimen of medications to maintain any kind of normalcy, it should be a felony. It’s absolutely crazy to me that we should go light on this,” Sen. Joel Anderson said as he debated the bill, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
“This isn’t about making people sick; it’s about people living with HIV being able to live their lives and not be subject to felonies that people with other communicable diseases are not subject to,” said Jo Michael, legislative manager at LGBT advocacy group Equality California. In fact, Michael said this legislation will lead to more individuals seeking treatment. “HIV was singled out, and that increases the stigma,” Michael said. “If you want to lower new infection rates and have fewer people living with it over time, addressing the disparity in discrimination is a way to do it.”
Two recent medical studies — the PARTNER study, which followed 900 heterosexual and gay couples for 16 months; and Opposites Attract study, which followed 358 gay couples — have determined that the risk of transmission while taking ART is effectively zero.
“We can achieve full suppression of viral replication, and we know from the data: If the medication is taken continuously and over the time of the infection, there is no breakthrough infection anymore,” said Hendrik Streeck, director of the Institute of HIV Research at the University Duisburg-Essen in Germany, which conducts research on therapy methods and vaccine development.
Without taking ART, condoms and PrEP (a medicine that lowers the risk of infection), reduce the risk of getting HIV by more than 90 percent.
Scientists from the National Institutes of Health and Paris-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi are also moving closer to developing a vaccine for AIDS.
According to research at the William Institute of Law at UCLA, the California law before its reform disproportionately affected women and people of color, and 95 percent of HIV-specific criminal incidents impacted sex workers or suspected sex workers.
Recent CDC statistics show that individuals living below the poverty line are two times more likely to be HIV-positive than those living above it.
States are still resistant to reforming HIV laws
Despite the latest science, many states remain hesitant to change laws adopted in the 1990s. In total, 29 states impose felonies on an individual who fails to disclose their HIV status before sex, and three states (Louisiana, Minnesota and New Jersey) impose punishments equivalent to that of a felony offense, with sentences of at least two years in prison.
In Tennessee a person living with HIV who knowingly exposes others can be quarantined by the state’s Department of Health “after exercising other appropriate measures” if he or she is determined to be a threat to the public. This health code does not require a conviction under the Tennessee HIV-exposure law.
State HIV criminal laws stem from a federal initiative in 1990 under the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, which made funding for AIDS treatment and care contingent on states passing laws to prosecute individuals who knowingly exposed someone to HIV.
In 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of deaths for adults 25 to 44 years old. There were 51,414 deaths that year, the peak of the epidemic. Since new drugs to treat HIV became available between 1995 and 1996, the number of HIV-related deaths per year in the United States have sharply declined. In 2014 there were 6,721 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Iowa was among the first states to take small steps in reforming HIV laws, along with Colorado. In 2014, Iowa eliminated a requirement for convicted individuals to register as sex offenders, and it created a tiered penalty system, which now looks at whether transmission of HIV occurred and whether or not exposure was intentional. Additionally, other diseases were elevated to be included under the law, such as hepatitis or tuberculosis. However, someone who exposes a partner to HIV can still face up to five years in prison — up to 25 years in prison if the virus is transmitted.
In 2016, Colorado eliminated felony penalty enhancements involving sex workers living with HIV and modernized language having to do with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in its public health code. It also reduced the sentence enhancement for sexual assault if a person is HIV-positive to twice the original sentence and requires proof of transmission.
Catherine Hanssens, executive director of The Center for HIV Law & Policy, says these state measures still don’t reflect the latest science regarding HIV.
“The rest of the country does not understand that it is not easily transmittable and easily manageable,” Hanssens said. “[HIV] is serious, but it can be managed.”
Advocates are pushing against many state legislatures that show little inclination to reform their laws.
“There are efforts to change the laws under way across the country from Florida to Ohio to Washington state,” said Kate Boulton, staff attorney at the HIV Center for Law & Policy. She says it is a highly complex process, depending on the political climate of the states.
“It has a lot to do with how the individual legislation works and how connected to policymakers the advocates are,” Hanssens said.
An Ohio Supreme Court challenge fails
Ohio could have been the next state to reform their HIV criminalization laws, but the Ohio Supreme Court decided to uphold its current HIV codes in a ruling on Oct. 27. Orlando Batista appealed after being charged with a second-degree felony assault in 2016 for transmitting HIV to his girlfriend without disclosure and receiving a charge of eight years in prison.
The American Civil Liberties Union advised the court that his conviction violated the equal-protection clause by singling out people living with HIV, and it forced disclosure of personal medical diseases that violated his right to freedom of speech.
Elizabeth Bonham, staff attorney at ACLU, had been hopeful the law would be struck down in its entirety. “This was a disappointing decision and a setback for the rights of people living with HIV, but we will continue fighting against the stigma and against criminalization,” she said in an email the day the Supreme Court decision was released.
“I live in a state where legislators aren’t educated on HIV. The laws don’t protect me.”– Nina Martinez, diagnosed with transfusion-acquired HIV at age 8
In Georgia, reform of HIV laws might take even longer, as advocates are still in the process of trying to update their legislators on the medical science of HIV transmission.
“I live in a state where legislators aren’t educated on HIV. The laws don’t protect me. … There is no room for defense for people like myself,” said Nina Martinez, who was diagnosed with transfusion-acquired HIV (passed along through blood) when she was 8 years old.
Martinez was present last week when Georgia State Legislator Betty Price — former Trump Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s wife — used the word “quarantine” in a suggestion for how to stop the spread of HIV in a meeting on improving health-care access.
“I feel like we’re back in the ’90s, but we’re in 2017,” Martinez said.
In Indiana the health codes are tied to HIV laws. Individuals given an HIV-positive diagnosis are asked to sign an acknowledgement that their health providers have a “duty to warn” — meaning doctors and health-care providers are permitted to break client/patient confidentiality agreements in cases having to do with HIV exposure. This could make people less likely to seek out a diagnosis or disclose information to their therapists or doctors.
“Health providers become an extension of the laws,” said Carrie Foote, chair of the HIV Modernization Movement in Indiana, which was formed last summer.
People living with HIV caught in the crosshairs
Aside from health providers, residents who seek diagnosis open themselves to potential criminal action merely by knowing their status. “If you don’t know your HIV status, it’s not a crime,” Foote said.
Travis Spoor was diagnosed with HIV in 2012, but he had never been linked to care when he was sentenced to three years in prison in Indiana for failing to disclose his HIV status to a sexual partner, even though he did not transmit HIV. Foote said it will be incredibly difficult for him to start getting treatment in the Indiana jails, since he had not been receiving care before his arrest.
“He should have been linked to care. Our system failed him, and it’s still failing him,” Foote said.
HIV is the only disease criminalized under Indiana laws. “It is not based on whether someone intended to harm or did harm. It’s based solely on their HIV status,” Foote said.
EQCA legislative manager Michael said, “Wherever laws like this exist, they are harming people.”
Nationally, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee reintroduced the REPEAL (Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal) HIV Discrimination Act in the House for the third time in March 2017, requesting that the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense review and modernize federal and state law regarding HIV-positive individuals. The same bill was introduced twice by Delaware Sen. Christopher Coons in the Senate and rejected both times.
“I don’t think this has particularly strong prospects in the current congressional climate,” said Boulton in an email.
Indiana HIV activist Foote remains determined.
“It shouldn’t matter how liberal or conservative your state is. It has to do with the fact that we have a health epidemic,” she said. “We have a public health issue. In this case, states are using the state law in an unwarranted way to treat a health issue, where there’s no evidence that works. … [HIV] criminalization has a unit effect, a family effect, and it has a ripple. It negatively affects all of us.”
Advocates for decriminalizing HIV in Georgia saw small wins last week as two measures from state lawmakers that would create committees to study the issue moved closer to passage.
Nina Martinez, a member of the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia, testified about one of the measures before the House Special Rules Committee on Wednesday.
“Our HIV non-disclosure statute makes it a felony crime for me not to disclose my HIV-positive status before engaging in private consensual conduct, without regard to whether or not measures are taken to prevent HIV exposure and transmission. Without harming anyone or intending to harm anyone, I could face up to 10 years of imprisonment,” Martinez told the committee.
In Georgia, HIV criminalization laws make it a felony for an HIV-positive person to engage in sex without first disclosing their status. The laws also criminalize acts like spitting when the behavior is directed at law enforcement officers with penalties that include up to 20 years in prison.
Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a Republican from Douglas, challenged Martinez on her statement.
“Would you share briefly a specific instance, personally, of where you have been discriminated against and how it impacted your ability to move freely and do all the things that you do?” LaRiccia asked.
Martinez responded by discussing being the victim of an attack that she decided against reporting to law enforcement over concerns about her HIV status.
“About nine years ago I was sexually assaulted by an Emory undergraduate student. I was at Emory for graduate school, and because of this law I immediately knew that I wasn’t going to report it to law enforcement,” Martinez said.
“It was never going to be about consent, it was going to be about my HIV status. And so I was afraid of the very real possibility of going to prison for my own sexual assault because of this law,” she added.
Rep. Buddy Harden, the Republican chair of the committee, quickly thanked Martinez for her testimony and the committee voted to approve the resolution. The measure, House Resolution 240, is from Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Marietta Republican.
But the resolution that passed last week was a watered down version of what Cooper initially proposed in February. It called for the creation of a Joint Study Committee on Reforming HIV Related Criminal Laws but was pared back to propose a House-only committee that will investigate reforms needed to address a variety of chronic illnesses, including HIV, as well as asthma, obesity, shingles and influenza.
The new language now calls on the study committee to “assess the HIV laws’ alignment with current evidence regarding HIV transmission risk and consider whether these laws are the best vehicle to achieve their intended purpose,” in addition to addressing the other chronic health issues.
Cooper’s revised resolution also states:
“WHEREAS, identifying the barriers to HIV awareness, testing, and early linkage to care would be in the state’s best interest; Georgia ranks fifth in the nation for new HIV diagnoses; the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta area is listed as eighth in cities with the highest rate of new HIV infection; it is estimated that one in 51 Georgians are at risk of contracting HIV in their future.”
Lawmakers create study committees to hear expert testimony and collect information about an issue ahead of possible legislative action. It is too late in the session to gain approval for a joint study committee – one that includes House and Senate members – so the measure approved last week was limited to a House study committee. That means it only needs House approval to create the nine-member study committee that would include five lawmakers and four health experts.
With just two days – Tuesday and Thursday – left in the session, it’s not clear if Cooper’s resolution will see a full House vote.
The other promising study committee is from Sen. Vincent Fort (photo), an Atlanta Democrat who introduced Senate Resolution 465. That resolution would create a nine-person panel and includes language from Cooper’s original resolution:
“[M]any of these state laws criminalize behaviors that the CDC regards as posing either no or negligible risk for HIV transmission even in the absence of risk reduction measures.”
Fort’s resolution received a favorable recommendation from a Senate committee but it’s not clear if the Senate Rules Committee will push the resolution to the full Senate for a vote.
LGBT and HIV activists have blasted HIV criminalization laws in nearly three-dozen states as a failure, criticizing the statues for adding stigma to HIV, keeping people from getting tested, and oppressing already marginalized populations such as LGBT people.
A Marietta Republican is sponsoring a measure to examine the state’s HIV criminalization laws, which advocates argue are outdated and stigmatize people with HIV.
Rep. Sharon Cooper (photo), who chairs the influential House Health & Human Services Committee, introduced House Resolution 240 on Feb. 14 to create a Joint Study Committee on Reforming HIV Related Criminal Laws.
“It was brought to my attention that a lot of the laws on our books are older, and that a lot of the laws on HIV were done in the eighties and we’ve certainly had a lot of change in science since that time,” Cooper said.
In Georgia, HIV criminalization laws make it a felony for an HIV-positive person to engage in sex without first disclosing their status. The laws also criminalize acts like spitting – when the behavior is directed at law enforcement officers with penalties that include up to 20 years in prison.
The current Georgia law also doesn’t take into account issues like condom usage or advising a partner to take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) after sexual intercourse – acts which reduce the likelihood of transmission. LGBT and HIV activists have blasted HIV criminalization laws in nearly three-dozen states as a failure, criticizing the statues for adding stigma to HIV, keeping people from getting tested, and oppressing already marginalized populations such as LGBT people.
“The law in Georgia doesn’t require intent to infect, it doesn’t require likelihood of transmission because it has things like spit, urine, feces in it. It doesn’t require transmission,” Nina Martinez, a member of the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia, said during a panel discussion last year.
Lawmakers create study committees to hear expert testimony and collect information about an issue ahead of possible legislative action. Cooper’s resolution would create a 12-member committee – five members each from the House and Senate, along with a representative of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council and the state Department of Public Health – that would meet and issue a report of its findings by Dec. 1.
“Sometimes you have to take baby steps,” Cooper said. “Bring in the experts to give you the background and the academic backing to back up which route you decide to go.”
One option the committee could study is completely eliminating HIV criminalization laws, according to Cooper’s legislation:
“The best practice would be for states to reform these laws to eliminate HIV-specific criminal penalties except in two distinct circumstances. First, states may wish to retain criminal liability when a person who knows he or she is HIV positive commits a (non-HIV specific) sex crime when there is a risk of transmission (e.g., rape or other sexual assault). The second circumstance is when the individual knows he or she is HIV positive and the evidence clearly demonstrates that individual’s intent was to transmit the virus and that the behavior engaged in had a significant risk of transmission, whether or not transmission actually occurred.”
Another option the committee could explore is keeping current laws in place but updating them to reflect the actual routes of transmission that are possible, eliminating actions such as biting and spitting. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention supports reforming HIV criminalization laws.
HR 240 has been assigned to the House Special Rules committee and undergoes the same route to approval as other legislation. If it gets approval from the committee, then it moves to a House vote and then to the Senate for consideration.
The resolution has a handful of influential co-sponsors, including Rep. Wendell Willard, a Republican and chair of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Democrat and Minority Whip, and Rep. Bruce Broadrick, a Republican from Dalton.
Bill would OK expedited partner treatment for STDs
Cooper is also sponsoring another sexual and reproductive health related measure. House Bill 360 allows physicians to prescribe medications for certain sexually transmitted diseases – namely chlamydia and gonorrhea – to somebody’s partner without first examining the partner. Expedited partner therapy (EPT) is recommended by the CDC to help control the spread of certain STDs.
“Normally the physicians have to see somebody before they order a medication, and sometimes it’s very hard to get the partner to come in,” Cooper said.
“[EPT] allows one part of the duo to save face, and hopefully take the medicine and then make sure they are both clear so they are not just reinfecting each other,” she added.
Some 38 states currently allow this practice. HB 360 has been assigned to Cooper’s Health & Human Services Committee. Cooper said a version of this bill introduced last year was passed in the House and was held up in the Senate.
Neither the resolution or the bill has been scheduled for a hearing.
Georgians living with HIV can be locked away for up to a decade for neglecting to inform sexual partners of their status, even if they’ve been told by a doctor that their viral loads are too low to transmit the virus.
Under Georgia law, HIV-positive people are required to tell partners of their status prior to sex. If they don’t, they could be charged and convicted for “reckless conduct” — a felony — even if they don’t transmit the virus. People who divulge such personal info to others can face harsh discrimination, and even violence, for saying they have HIV. In other cases, their privacy could be compromised.
According to the Center for HIV and Law Policy, more than 30 states have laws about prior notification and spitting or biting, even though medical experts say such behavior does little, if anything, to contribute to the transmission of HIV. And Georgia activists who are trying to end HIV stigma want state lawmakers to revisit laws here.
The topic was raised on Nov. 30, the evening before World AIDS Day, at an event organized by advocacy group Georgia Equality. During a panel discussion at the event, four HIV-positive people talked about the stigma that comes with living with the condition.
Nina Martinez, a public health analyst and Georgia Equality activist, said she hasn’t had a relationship in 11 years. That’s because Martinez is worried she could be beaten or criminally charged for merely engaging in romantic endeavors with someone who is not aware of her condition. Martinez told the few dozen people in attendance that, after being sexually assaulted, she kept quiet in fear of “going to prison for my own rape.”
Panel speakers said they’re working with local politicians to create legislation that could reduce the stigma surrounding HIV. Many people don’t know that HIV-positive people taking proper medication can have normal sex lives with virtually no risk of passing the virus to others, said panel moderator Dazon Dixon Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove, an advocacy group focused on African-American women with HIV/AIDS.
Dixon Diallo said appropriate use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, and antiretroviral therapy can now virtually quash the chances of transmission during intercourse or other exchanges of bodily fluids, citing a two-year study of more than 1,000 couples that knew of their partner’s status.
“Treatment is prevention,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, associate dean of faculty development and research at Georgia State University’s school of public health. “Getting people on adequate treatment (defined as no detectable viral load) clearly diminishes transmission considerably.”
Georgia has one of the highest diagnosis rates of HIV in the nation. According to a recent study by the Big Cities Health Coalition, metro Atlanta had the country’s second-highest rate of HIV diagnoses, second to Washington, D.C. Nearly half of metro Atlanta cases are in Fulton County.
“So how well has our criminalization law done to drive down [HIV] cases?,” asked Mel Medalle, a SisterLove policy and advocacy advisor. “I don’t think very well.”
To people who aren’t knowledgeable of advancements in HIV treatment and prevention, Dixon Diallo said, “it might seem like these laws are helping people … But there is no sense of agency or responsibility to someone who is not HIV positive.” For example, Martinez said she could be taken to court for not informing a partner of her status prior to having sex, even if she contracts an STD her partner might be carrying in the process. “Complying with the law assumes that disclosure is safe,” she said. “But there’s nothing to stop that guy on a Friday night from giving me syphilis.”
One audience member asked whether a pre-sex, contractual understanding could thwart cases in which people raise issues with the terms of their sexual exploits after the fact. Medalle said having such a document in theory but “in the real world, the stigma would outweigh that every single time.”
Charles Stephens, director of The Counter Narrative Project, an advocacy group supporting gay black men, said HIV criminalization is also used as a means of endorsing homophobic and xenophobic policy. Stephens has followed the case of Michael Johnson, a gay black college wrestler who last summer was jailed after being convicted of transmitting HIV to one man and risking the infection of four others. Johnson was sentenced by a Missouri court to more than 30 years in prison. A Missouri appeals court yesterday ordered he receive a new trial.
“A lot of national organizations are only interested in people with perfect narratives,” Stephens said. “No one was talking about this…If Michael had blonde hair and blue eyes, the cavalry would have come a lot sooner.”
Marxavian Jones, an activist with NAESM, a group that provides education and services for people affected by HIV/AIDS, reminded the crowd that the virus does not discriminate.
“When talking about HIV, it’s not just numbers, these are lives,” Jones said. “People who are married catch HIV. People who have one partner catch HIV. People who have sex for the first time catch HIV. Everyone’s story is different, and it’s unfair to put rules and labels on how people have to share their private and personal information.”
The panelists said they’re working to draft a legislative proposal — they said it’s too early to share specifics — for the upcoming General Assembly to address Georgia’s laws and “decriminalize HIV,” once and for all.
“The H in HIV stands for humans, and we seem to be missing that humanistic approach,” Jones said. “I am not a walking infection. I am a human. Don’t lock me up for who I am.”
A panel of HIV activists and LGBT organizers took aim at laws in Georgia that criminalize people with HIV and can leave them facing prison sentences of up to 20 years.
The discussion about decriminalizing HIV took center stage at a World AIDS Day panel on Nov. 30. People with HIV in Georgia can face a prison term of up to 10 years for having sex with someone without disclosing their HIV status. Even acts like spitting – which do not transmit HIV – are criminalized when directed towards a law enforcement officer with penalties that include up to 20 years of prison time.
Last year, a gay Atlanta man was charged in South Carolina with exposing a sex partner to HIV. Tyler Orr said he did disclose and as the panelists pointed out during the recent discussion, what counts as disclosure and how to avoid “he said, she said” debates in court is unclear.
“What advocates have tried to encourage folks to do in this really unwinnable situation is to have a notarized document or affidavit before you engage in one of these punishable acts,” Mel Medalle of SisterLove told the crowd of about 40 people.
“Which almost never happens, but that is how extreme and absurd this situation is,” Medalle added.
Nina Martinez, a member of the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia, pointed out that disclosure laws can also create safety risks for people with HIV.
“Every single time, especially as a woman, every single time, it’s me risking my personal safety,” Martinez said.
Marxavian Jones, who serves as one of Georgia Equality’s Youth HIV Policy Advisors, echoed agreed with Martinez.
“Who is going to defend me when I disclose my status to someone and they take it to social media and decide they want to tell everybody,” Jones said.
The Center for HIV Law & Policy has pointed to the increased risk of intimate partner violence that can come with disclosure, writing that disclosure can “provide an additional excuse, or cover, for physical violence.”
The ongoing stigma of HIV-positive individuals also means that – as Jones pointed out – a disgruntled lover posting a partner’s HIV status to social media can have real consequences, including job loss or being outed to family.
During the National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta last year, public health experts and HIV activists argued that rather than criminalizing HIV-positive people, and adding to the stigma they face, people with HIV should be pushed to treatment options.
At the recent panel, participants also highlighted legislation being drafted by the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia. The coalition is currently reaching out to legislators to find a sponsor for the bill.
“[The legislation is] so we can repeal, which would completely get rid of it,” Medalle said. “The other option would be to reform it, so to make changes to it but to ultimately have some semblance of it.”
While Medalle said it may seem like a “no brainer that we wouldn’t want this [law],” stigma and other means of criminalizing HIV-positive individuals makes the issue more complicated. In Texas and a handful of other states, there are no specific statutes that target people with HIV but they are still prosecuted under other laws including reckless endangerment.
Reforming the law means that advocates can create better standards for prosecutions, and can “craft a law that comports with modern HIV science, what we know about the routes of transmission,” Medalle said.
Martinez, who is a member of the coalition, said the HIV criminalization law in Georgia also falls short in other aspects.
“The law in Georgia doesn’t require intent to infect, it doesn’t require likelihood of transmission because it has things like spit, urine, feces in it. It doesn’t require transmission,” Martinez said.
The Georgia law also doesn’t take into account issues like condom usage or advising a partner to take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) after sexual intercourse – acts which reduce the likelihood of transmission. The reforms to the law would change that, the panelists said.
Emily Halden Brown, a Georgia Equality field organizer who organized the panel discussion, said the event highlighted how people with HIV are impacted by it.
“I think the most valuable moment in all of the discussions I’ve ever been a part of on this, are the moments where people living with HIV share the stories of how they are directly impacted,” Brown said. “Anytime someone shares their personal story you can just feel the change in the audience.”
The event was hosted by Georgia Equality, SisterLove, and The Counter Narrative Project at Gallery 874. The panel discussion coincided with the “Living With” art exhibit, which featured art about the experiences of living with HIV. A closing reception helped raise funds for Georgia Equality’s HIV policy work.
Words & Photos by Regina Willis | clockwise left to right: Marxavian Jones, Georgia Equality Youth HIV Policy Advisors; facilitator Daizon Dixon, founder of SisterLove; Nine Martinez of Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia; Charles Stephens, founder and executive director of the Counter Narrative Project; Mel Medalle, Policy & Advocacy Program Manager at SisterLove.