A controversial package of bills would drop the punishment for people living with HIV who fail to disclose their status to a sexual partner from a felony to a misdemeanor, among other changes. House Bills 6016-6023 would update Michigan’s laws to reflect a more realistic and modern approach to HIV laws.
An update is needed, for example, because of a listed medication that is no longer used. Another outdated part of the laws calls for HIV reporting within seven days, when near-instant results are now available. Another controversial provision would force pregnant women in high risk populations to take an HIV test in their third trimester, but patients would have the option of getting out of the test.
But the most important improvement in the package of new bills is the removal of sections that are affected by HIV stigma. “These bills represent a way to reduce the stigma of HIV and treat it like any other infectious disease,” Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical officer, told reporters before the House Health Policy committee on May 23.
Under the proposed laws, failing to disclose an HIV status would result in a punishment of a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine. As it stands, Michigan law mandates that people living with HIV have a duty to warn others, and failing to do so can result in a serious felony charge, and you may be labeled as a health threat.
The first instance of an HIV diagnosis in Michigan happened in 1981, and of course, a lot has changed regarding the severity of an HIV diagnosis since then. “The basis of the law as it was written (in the 1980s) was in reaction to a lot of the hysteria and panic around the diagnosis,” Wells said, add that with medication, patients can become undetectable “and then they won’t transmit the HIV.”
Some people avoid getting tested for HIV because of the legal ramifications of transmitting the disease to others. They don’t want to suddenly be held liable for a crime, when they weren’t even aware of their status. Depending on what state you live in, people living with HIV who don’t disclose their status every time could be charged with assault and battery, reckless endangerment — and even attempted murder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
People living with HIV, of course, are now able to reach undetectable and untransmissable levels of HIV thanks to the efficacy of modern medicine, with proper care. A felony charge, or punishment for attempted murder may no longer reflect the disease that was once an automatic death sentence.
According to Wells, 22 people in Michigan have been charged for failing to disclose HIV status, but 19 of those were charged for not disclosing their status, not for infecting others with HIV. Not being upfront is the crime in question, not necessarily infecting others. Once a person is rightfully aware of status, it’s up to themselves to make the right decisions.
Sponsor of the bill that would reduce the disclosure law, State Rep. Jon Hoadley, said that it’s time to “modernize” Michigan’s laws. Other state representatives believed otherwise, including Rep. Ed Canfield, who reminded the room that HIV is still incurable (although completely treatable in most cases).
Twenty-four states require people living with HIV to disclose their status, and 14 require them to disclose their status when sharing needles. Twenty-five states have punishments for negligible behavior coming from people living with HIV.
A vote on the bill package is expected to be taken up again before the Michigan House breaks for the summer in mid-June.