By JADA FRAZIER
(CNS) – The House Courts of Justice Committee will soon consider a bill to lessen the punishment for anyone who unintentionally infects someone else with a sexually-transmitted infection.
The bill, SB 1138 repeals the crime of infected sexual battery, the act of a person who is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection engaging in sexual behavior that could potentially transmit the infection to someone else. The bill passed the Senate last Friday 21-17.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D- Hampton, and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond, are the bill’s co-patrons. The bill would reduce the crime from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor and changes language in the law to indicate that any sexually transmitted infection falls under the crime, not just HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B.
The bill also prevents someone with an STI from being found guilty of infected sexual battery if they have intercourse with another person without disclosing their positive status. Someone can only be found guilty if they had intent to infect another person and that person was successfully infected.
“This bill will modernize our HIV laws and decriminalize HIV positive status,” McClellan said during the hearing of the bill on Friday. “We have learned that these [past laws] are actually counterproductive from a public health perspective and they also stigmatize HIV plus status and are based on what we now know was incorrect science.”
Studies show that because of current infected sexual battery laws, people avoid getting tested and treated because of the potential criminal prosecution that having an STI could bring forth, McClellan said when she introduced the bill to the judiciary committee on Jan. 27.
When the HIV laws were first put in place, the infection was considered untreatable and seen as a “death sentence,” but advancements in medicine have shown that that is not the case, she said.
During the judiciary meeting, Deirdre Johnson, the cofounder of Ending Criminalization of HIV and Over Incarceration, or ECHO, explained that through treatment, many people have undetectable HIV, meaning that they cannot transmit the infection to other people, but under current law they can still be charged in infected battery cases.
“Virginia’s HIV criminalization law is rooted in stigma and discrimination,” Johnson said. “It targets people living with HIV specifically, painting them to be viewed as vectors of disease and to be feared and criminalized. HIV criminalization is a racial justice issue and these laws have been disproportionately used against black, latinx, and indigenous communities.”
Some legislators who were opposed to the bill said they had concerns about the lack of punishment for people who intentionally infect others.
“This downgrades intentional sexual battery with the intent to transmit HIV, Syphilis and Hepatitis from a felony to a misdemeanor,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, R- Rockingham, said during the session on Friday.
“Somebody who actually infects their partner intentionally, we’re saying ‘that’s eh, the equivalent of reckless driving.’”
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, also stated her concerns about intentionality.
“I believe [victims] deserve the recourse if they are willfully infected with something they have to seek medical treatment for for the rest of their lives,” Dunnavant said. “The fact that this bill would take that away from a woman that is injured, seems to fly in the face of everything we’ve been fighting for for so long.”
During the judiciary committee, an expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and co-founder of ECHO, Cedric Pulliam, spoke on the legislators’ concerns about intentionality.
“In this particular law, intentionality has not ever in most of the criminal proceedings even been proven,” Pulliam said. “You do not even have to transmit the virus of HIV to the partner that has brought you to court to prosecute you under infected sexual battery law.
“For the prosecution to prove intentionality, it’s a he said, she said kind of situation, whereas where is the actual proof of that intentionality.”