Outdated disclosure laws haven't been updated to reflect modern science
On October 13, 2013, a young Missouri man named Michael Johnson was arrested and charged with recklessly infecting another person with HIV, which is a felony in many states.
Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in prison after he failed to disclose his HIV-positive status to someone with whom he had recently had a sexual encounter. Johnson, who was recently granted parole, will remain incarcerated until late next year, but his case has started a much-needed conversation about the effectiveness of felony disclosure laws.
In Ohio, it is currently illegal for someone who is HIV positive to have sex without disclosing their health status. It is considered a class B felony, and could result in up to 25 years in prison and mandated registration as a sex offender. These laws present a situational bias, where the accused is treated as a walking health hazard, meaning, you could be HIV positive, have a one-night stand under the influence, fail to disclose your HIV status and be thrown in jail — even if the other person did not contract the virus.
There is also the issue of who is at fault. In the aforementioned case, Johnson was responding to an ad on popular gay dating site Adam4Adam — an ad where his would-be accuser was looking to have random raw sex. Was it Johnson's intent to purposefully infect this person? And is the accuser absolved from any wrongdoing even though he specifically wanted to engage in a risky, unprotected sexual behavior?
According to Missouri law, even though the accuser cannot pinpoint who he contracted the HIV virus from, because Johnson did not disclose his status before their encounter, Johnson is automatically the guilty party.
These types of laws were created to curb a spike in HIV transmission rates in the early '90s. They have been on the books for about two decades and do not reflect the scientific advances in present-day treatment and prevention (how the laws define “exposure,” for one, doesn't reflect our modern understanding of the disease). A positive diagnosis is not the death sentence it once was. Patients who adhere to their treatment regime can end up with a suppressed or undetectable viral load, which means that they are unable to pass the virus along to others, even when having unprotected sex.
Since we have come so far with treatment, being HIV positive should not automatically make you a direct threat to public health. It should also be noted that these types of laws do not exist for other sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes or chlamydia, and can even deter someone from getting tested due to fears of a positive diagnosis, which can imply that every sexually active, HIV-positive person is merely a potential criminal. The laws also don't work. A 2013 report in the American Journal of Public Health concluded criminalization laws do not halt the spread of the virus.
We are out of the age of containment, and now in the age of treatment. Unfair laws like this need to be re-evaluated and updated to reflect modern science, or eradicated altogether. Framing HIV-positive gay men as walking health hazards and throwing them in jail does not aid in finding a cure for a disease that can now be suppressed, and handing out prison time should not be embraced as an effective way to prevent the virus from spreading any further.