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North Dakota Rejects Changes to HIV Law, Missouri Considers Them

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Lawmakers in North Dakota have rejected an effort to ease the state’s HIV criminalization law, while those in Missouri are considering changes to their statute.

In North Dakota Wednesday, the Republican-led House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted down House Bill 1106, which would have made it an infraction, rather than a Class A felony, to “willfully” transfer bodily fluid containing HIV. A Class A felony carries penalties including up to 20 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, according to Fargo newspaper The Forum, while an infraction carries a fine of $1,000 and no jail time. Exposure to other sexually transmitted infections is classified as an infraction.

The newspaper says the law involves “knowingly transmitting HIV,” but the bill’s title refers to “willfully transferring body fluid containing the human immunodeficiency virus,” and the transfer of such a fluid doesn’t always result in transmission. HIV-negative people who faithfully stick to a pre-exposure prophylaxis regimen, the daily dosage of an HIV prevention drug, have virtually no chance of becoming infected with the virus if they are exposed during sex. And HIV-positive people who have suppressed their level of virus to the point that it’s undetectable in lab tests can’t transmit it to their sexual partners.

Democratic Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, HB 1106’s lead sponsor, cited current science on HIV transmission in arguing for the legislation. The state should update its law “to appropriately reflect 21st-century medical advances,” she told the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

But the committee voted 11-3 against the bill — the only two Democratic members supported it, as did one Republican — and sent it to the full House with a “do not pass” recommendation. A Republican who voted against the measure, Rep. Steve Vetter, said the $1,000 was a “measly fine,” according to the AP. The next day, the full House rejected it by a vote of 73-18.

In Missouri, Senate Bill 65 was filed in advance of the current session to reduce the penalty for knowingly exposing a person to HIV, without their knowledge or consent, in an activity in which there’s a substantial risk of transmission. Exposure that doesn’t result in transmission would be a Class D felony (maximum sentence seven years, no minimum) instead of a Class B one (maximum sentence 15 years, minimum five). If the partner does become infected with HIV, the person who transmitted it would be charged with a Class C felony (maximum sentence 10 years, minimum three) instead of a Class A one (maximum sentence life for the most serious crimes, minimum 10 years). The bill was referred Thursday to the Health and Pensions Committee, according to the Senate website. A similar bill failed to pass in the House last year.

Laws that criminalize people with HIV for exposing their sexual partners to the virus have the effect of discouraging testing, activists say. ”You have a unofficial motto in the local communities where it’s ‘take the test and risk arrest,’ because if you know your diagnosis you know that holds you liable, but if you don’t know?” Tasha Schill, a staffer at AIDS Project of the Ozarks, told Springfield TV station KYTV in December. “Then we have more people out there who are spreading it and it becomes a domino effect.” She was diagnosed with HIV at age 17, she said.

Lynne Meyerkord, the organization’s executive director, told the station it’s very rare that anyone wants to infect someone else with HIV, and if SB 65 passes, it will still provide penalties for “folks that are truly acting recklessly or intentionally.” HIV criminalization laws also open up the possibility of using a person’s HIV diagnosis against them in relationships that are abusive or end badly, she added.

“Those of us in the HIV community are aware of folks who, the relationship went south and the partner knew the individual had HIV but they claimed they didn’t, and I’ve known of people that have gone to jail for that,” Meyerkord said.

She and Schill additionally cited the current HIV treatment and prevention strategies that make it much harder, even impossible, to transmit the virus. “Get tested, take your meds, you are no longer a risk to the people around you,” Schill said.

Thirty-seven U.S. states still have laws that criminalize HIV exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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