Ambitious Bill Targets HIV/AIDS Discrimination

"It's about trying to be fair to people who have a treatable chronic disease rather than being literally criminals armed with a deadly weapon," Sen. Chris Coons says. Advocates are hopeful.

WASHINGTON — Activists in the fight against HIV/AIDS are hopeful that a new piece of legislation being introduced Monday will get bipartisan attention in the Senate despite the dysfunction currently slowing down Washington.

The "Repeal HIV Discrimination Act," to be introduced by Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, calls for an inter-agency wide review of state laws and policies targeting people living with HIV and AIDS, and resembles a bill introduced last May in the House by California Rep. Barbara Lee. Thirty-two states currently have laws on the books that use HIV status to criminally convict people.

"There are places in this country where state and local laws make it similar to assault with a deadly weapon for somebody with HIV/AIDS to spit on someone, for example. That's based on an outdated unscientific fear that fed lots of discrimination," Coons said in an interview with BuzzFeed. "There's no scientific proof any people are at risk from that kind of an incident and these are exactly the sort of thing this interagency study should look at to try and bring attention to."

There have been at least 80 such prosecutions "in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting" in the last two years, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy.

One such case — that of Nick Rhoades — was recently profiled by BuzzFeed and Pro Publica. Rhoades was jailed and then put on probation for having sex without first disclosing his HIV status — despite both using a condom and taking a regiment of antiviral suppressant drugs that made the chance of transmission "likely zero," according to a group of AIDS health officials. He did not transmit the virus to his partner. Rhoades is now registered as an aggravated sex offender.

According to the Center, in another case, an HIV-positive man is currently serving 35 years for spitting at a police officer.

"What I think [the bill] does, is again move towards repealing legal discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS. It's about trying to be fair to people who have a treatable chronic disease rather than being literally criminals armed with a deadly weapon," Coons said.

Despite the meager legislative output this year, Congress did pass the HOPE Act — a bipartisan bill that allows researchers to study organ donations from one HIV-positive person to another. The law changed a long-standing ban on organ donations from HIV-positive people; previously it was illegal to even research if these kinds of organ donations were effective.

The law's passage by unanimous voice vote in both chambers has given advocates hope that the idea of passing the Coons and Lee legislation isn't too far-fetched.

"The time is good, we have another year to go in this 113th Congress. We have seen that we can move some things forward," said Diego Sanchez, director of policy at PFLAG National. "The recent HOPE Act being signed into law by president Obama with a resounding bipartisan, bicameral show of support for something regarding people living with HIV/AIDS."

The House bill, introduced in the 112th Congress as well, currently has 34 co-sponsors. But this time, Lee managed to find some bipartisan support. Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen joined her as the lead co-sponsor. Coons said he's hoping to have a Republican co-sponsor "very shortly."

"One of the pleasant surprises of a Congress that is as divided and as dysfunctional as this one has been is that HIV/AIDS has been and remains a bipartisan issue," he said. "It is a review, it is a way of raising concern, and if we can't get this bill done it means we cant get anything done on dealing with HIV/AIDS stigma."

The bill requires several agencies, including the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, to review current laws and any federal policies that could be discriminatory against people living with HIV/AIDS. AIDS United political director Bill McColl said the law does not apply to laws concerning people who knowingly intend to spread the virus.

"That's a really different situation," McColl said. "But what we really want are judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys to really get up to date on the state of HIV and we don't want prosecutions that don't make any sense at all."

The bill follows up on several pieces of President Obama's 2010 National HIV/AIDS strategy. While an inter-agency review may not seem like a huge deal, McColl said codifying a review into law would mean Congress takes the issue seriously.

"One reason that we are going to Congress is that the HIV/AIDS strategy, while important, is solely at the discretion of the executive and we really want to make sure we've got a bipartisan buy-in," he said.

And Sanchez said the sheer symbolism of a bill like the Coons and Lee legislation passing would go a long way for people living with the disease.

"It's not just about the law," he said. "It expresses the sense of Congress, which to me, when you have a bill that becomes law that expresses the sense of Congress that discrimination is bad, I consider that to be very good."