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Advocacy Groups Say HIV Criminalization Law Hurts Public Health

Pills poured into bottle
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Groups hoping to repeal a 1989 Illinois law that criminalizes HIV transmission note how much science and medicine have progressed in fighting the virus over time. But not everyone living with HIV is able to access that life-saving care.

A law criminalizing HIV transmission has been in place in Illinois for over 30 years. Advocates fighting to get rid of the law say it hurts public health.

Currently, taking part in sexual activity without a condom without disclosing an HIV-positive status is a Class 2 felony. That could mean up to a $25,000 fine, along with prison time.

Chris Wade is a project coordinator and health equity advisor with the Illinois Public Health Association. He said the law discourages people from getting tested for HIV.

"You can't prosecute me if I don't know my status," said Wade. 

And he said the stigma against people living with HIV can be magnified when people make allegations against those with the virus.

"Most of those situations, unfortunately, the person is pulled into the court of public opinion, their face, address, name, and all that is thrown into a paper," said Wade. "This is an allegation, no one's been charged, no one's been to court, though you've already basically just stigmatized this person, put their status out there for the world to see."

Wade said people are still being prosecuted under the law.

"People living with HIV who harbor no ill will and have no intent to harm anyone are generally the ones prosecuted and often convicted through these state laws," said Wade. 

According to Wade, the law originally came into place because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention required states to implement laws against HIV in order to receive appropriations money.

"Bottom line, they were looking at it from a public policy approach of promoting fear, unfortunately, and that was further stigmatizing people living with HIV," said Wade. "We shouldn't be trying to scare people from wanting to get tested, or getting the care that they need."

Wade said evolutions in medicine such as PrEP that can help fight HIV make the current law unnecessary.

"We're trying to drive down the rates of HIV transmission," said Wade. "We can't do that if laws like this exist."

Christian Castro, a member of the HIV Illinois Action Alliance, said the law in place disproportionately impacts LGBTQ people, women and people of color. 

"(It) harms these communities unfairly and unjustly," said Castro.

But he said just getting rid of the law isn't enough. He said there needs to be attention given to the inequities caused by the virus.

"It can be manageable if there's, if you have quality health care, and quality doctors," said Castro. "Yes, it's not a death sentence, but for certain communities who are much more marginalized, health indicators aren't that great."

He said there needs to be less barriers to accessing health care, especially for the marginalized people affected by the virus.

"Overall, if we strive ... towards quality health care and access, it is manageable," said Castro.

The HIV decriminalization bill has passed the House. It has not yet come up for debate in committee in the Senate.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.