Efforts To Criminalize HIV Transmission Misguided

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

In a misguided attempt to thwart the spread of HIV and AIDS, lawmakers in many parts of the world have passed criminal statutes that promote ignorance about the disease, punish its victims and enhance the chances that the virus will infect new victims, South Africa Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Edwin Cameron writes in a Korea Herald opinion piece. He cites "poorly drafted policies" in Western and Central Africa that make HIV transmission a criminal offense, including mother-to-child transmission.

Cameron continues that although there are "rare and dramatic cases" in which an HIV-positive person transmits the disease to another person with the intent to harm, there are existing laws criminalizing these actions that "are more than adequate." Cameron writes, "Criminal laws targeting all HIV carriers, however, are counterproductive and inherently unjust" because they make HIV-positive people -- especially women -- criminals.


Cameron continues that in Africa, "women are usually blamed for bringing HIV into a relationship" because of the fact that they are more likely to be aware of their HIV status from tests they receive during prenatal care. "Most men, on the other hand -- deterred by fear, ignorance, pride, and, sometimes, taboo -- refuse to be tested voluntarily," making it "nearly impossible" for a woman to argue before a court that she contracted HIV from her male partner, Cameron writes.

He adds that laws criminalizing HIV transmission "undermine public health" by "deter[ring] people who are HIV-positive and those at risk of acquiring the virus from seeking testing, counseling and treatment. When persons face the possibility of criminal sanctions, not knowing their HIV status can be their most-effective legal defense." He adds that such laws "transform" HIV-positive people into "scapegoats for a societal problem for which the governments and broader societies are failing to undertake effective, and sometimes politically or culturally risky, steps that can defeat the disease."

Cameron concludes, "Open, informed discussion of the HIV epidemic, education into HIV prevention, distribution of condoms and other strategies are the only known way of preventing new infections," adding that the "vulnerability of women" must also be addressed by "protecting their equal right to marital property, enforcing laws against gender-based violence, including rape in marriage, and empowering them to negotiate safer sex with men" (Cameron, Korea Herald, 12/6).

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, search the archives, and sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email . The Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. © 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.