Under current Missouri law, a person who has tested positive for HIV can face serious legal consequences for actions as medically harmless as spitting. The statutes were written decades ago, before medical science caught up with the disease. That they're still on the books can subject HIV patients to additional victimization from overzealous prosecutors.
A new legislative push to bring Missouri's HIV-related sentencing laws into the 21st century deserves careful consideration.
Anyone not around or not old enough to follow the news in the early 1980s might not be able to appreciate the panic that AIDS created in America when reports first surfaced of a mysterious disease that was attacking the autoimmune systems of, primarily, young gay men and intravenous drug users. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.
Fear was joined by prejudice in the eyes of much of the public. For years, HIV was widely regarded as untreatable — and generally fatal. By 1993, it was the leading cause of death among young adults in major U.S. cities.
In Missouri, as elsewhere, political systems tried to respond to a deadly threat that was still little understood. Missouri law took a punitive approach, setting long prison terms — life, in some cases — for crimes related to exposing others to HIV, at a time when people still believed spitting on someone could be one method of exposure. (It isn't.)
Today, though HIV/AIDS is still potentially fatal, it is more commonly a treatable condition. With treatment, sufferers can lead normal lives, with few symptoms and vastly reduced chances of transmission. Treatments are improving all the time. Statistics make clear that criminalizing this illness doesn't help prevent it but does scare some possible victims into avoiding getting tested.
Today, the ravages of this disease have declined and societal attitudes have become more rational. But Missouri law hasn't. As the Post-Dispatch's Lexi Churchill reports, state lawmakers this week heard testimony on legislation designed to change that.
Among the changes suggested in two measures would be a dramatic reduction in penalties for inadvertently exposing partners to HIV. The measures would make the use of condoms and medications that reduce transmission affirmative defenses; incredibly, they currently aren't. Further, prosecutors would have to consider whether a person posed a substantial risk of transmission as determined by scientific evidence, which is much more solid today than it was in the 1980s.
In November 1987, when the Legislature was considering punitive laws like those on the books today, this newspaper argued that "AIDS is a public-health problem, not one that should be criminalized." Those words still ring true.
Today, medical science and facts must be allowed to prevail over legislation based on panic and irrationality. With the disease largely under control in the U.S., Missouri's HIV/AIDS laws should be updated to reflect that reality.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH