Good riddance to a bad Illinois law that punishes people for being HIV-positive

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Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. | AP Photos

The Illinois Legislature is likely this week to abolish the criminalization of HIV transmission. Thirty-three other states should do the same.

Josef Michael Carr’s mother was an assistant principal at a Catholic school in Chicago until she was dismissed in 1991.

Her offense?

She was a lesbian with HIV.

That was 30 years ago, yes. And society’s fear and loathing of people with HIV/AIDS, especially those who are gay, is by no means as extreme as it once was. But there is fear and loathing still, even written into Illinois law.

“My wife and I still have close friends who will not disclose their HIV status because they are fearful of mistreatment, discrimination and possible assault in this toxic cultural climate,” Carr, who is state chair of IVI-IPO, the good-government group, told us. “We need to protect HIV/AIDS citizens from criminalization.”

As a matter of law in Illinois since 1989, a person who transmits HIV to another person can be charged with a crime and, if found guilty, incarcerated. The police also can gain access to a person’s HIV status despite a separate law, the AIDS Confidentiality Act, meant to protect people from having their HIV-positive status used against them by employers or others.

But that’s about to end.

The Illinois Legislature, in a historic and symbolically powerful gesture, is likely as early as this week to abolish the criminalization of HIV transmission. House Bill 1063 sailed through the House in April, with bipartisan support, and looks certain to be approved by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Illinois then will have joined five other states since 2014 — California, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina — that have put an end to the criminalization of HIV transmission and it will be setting a fine example for 33 other states that still have such laws.

Fear, even hysteria

To understand how the laws came to be in the first place — how a public health crisis became a matter for cops and prisons — it helps to recall the fear, even hysteria, that swept the country in the early 1980s as Americans became aware of a mysterious and deadly new disease, AIDS.

People feared they could catch the bug just by touching somebody, and there were no effective medical treatments. Some state laws criminalized biting or spitting by an HIV-positive person, though saliva was not a probable transmission risk.

Adding to the fear was the loathing. Homophobia, more intense then than it is today, made it easier for legislatures to write laws that treated people with HIV — mostly gay men — as criminals rather than victims. No other sexually transmitted or communicable disease, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis or syphilis, could put you in line for jail.

But if the anti-gay bias at the heart of the Illinois law was not obvious then, it is now.

“We would not put a law on the books today that will criminalize COVID for people who refuse to test,” state Rep. Carol Ammons told a House committee in April. “We would not then criminalize people for knowingly passing COVID.”

Ammons, D-Urbana, is the lead sponsor of HB1063 in the House. Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, is the lead sponsor in the Senate.

Current law ineffective

Not one study has shown that the criminalizing of HIV transmission reduces the rate of transmission. On the contrary, research shows, criminalization has discouraged testing, treatment and disclosure, all of which are key to preventing the spread of HIV. The law, according to House witnesses, has been used in 22 criminal cases since 2012.

Strictly from a medical perspective, the continued criminalizing of HIV fails to account for major advances in care and treatment.

“HIV disease is in most cases today a manageable long-term condition,” states the American Academy of HIV Medicine, taking a strong stand against criminalization laws. “However, prosecutorial precedent still treats transmission of the disease as the equivalent of a death sentence.”

Medical advances also have dramatically decreased the risk of transmission.

“A person who is HIV positive, but who takes medication regularly stays virally suppressed,” Tom Hughes, executive director of the Illinois Public Health Association, told the House committee, “and is effectively no risk for the transmission of HIV.”

House Bill 1063 needs no push from us. It’s looking like a sure thing.

We merely want to mark this moment — and encourage every other state legislature to do the right thing, too.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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May 18, 2021 at 05:29PM

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