On Friday, Governor Jerry brown signed Senate Bill 239, which contains landmark legislation to reform the state’s laws specific to those living with HIV. The bill was authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Asm. Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) and cosponsored by Californians for HIV Criminalization Reform (CHCR), a broad coalition of people living with HIV, HIV and health service providers, civil rights organizations, and public health professionals dedicated to ending the criminalization of people living with HIV in California.
In the late 1980s, and at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, many states began creating laws that criminalized otherwise legal behaviors of people living with HIV, and added HIV-related penalties to existing crimes. As of 2014, 34 states have laws that specifically criminalize HIV exposure (not transmission) through consensual sex.
These laws were created based on fear due to the limited medical understanding of HIV at the time. When most of these laws were passed, there were no effective treatments for HIV and unfortunately many were dying due to its complications. Stigma around the condition was at an all-time high. The problem is, once set in the books, these laws did not evolve along with the advances in treatment and medical knowledge of HIV.
“Today California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue, instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” said Senator Wiener. “HIV should be treated like all other serious infectious diseases, and that’s what SB 239 does. We are going to end new HIV infections, and we will do so not by threatening people with state prison time, but rather by getting people to test and providing them access to care. I want to thank Governor Brown for his support in helping to put California at the forefront of a national movement to reform these discriminatory laws.”
These days HIV is a treatable condition, and people living with HIV and on antiretroviral therapy (ART) have a life-expectancy very similar to those who are HIV-negative. However, these laws haven’t addressed the advances in ART or PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a highly effective HIV prevention method. Rather than prevent transmission, HIV criminalization laws actually help increase the spread of HIV by perpetuating fear and stigma, causing many to avoid regular testing.
“State law will no longer discourage Californians from getting tested for HIV,” said Asm. Gloria. “With the Governor’s signature today, we are helping to reduce the stigma that keeps some from learning their HIV status and getting into treatment to improve their health, extend their lives, and prevent additional infections. I want to thank Governor Brown for signing SB 239. This action keeps California at the forefront in the fight to stop the spread of HIV.
HIV criminalization laws have also failed to acknowledge the discovery of U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable)—a consensus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hundreds of other national and world health organizations have already endorsed. U=U, based on extensive scientific research, states that an individual who reaches an undetectable viral load through ART has a zero chance of transmitting the virus to a partner.
“With his signature, Governor Brown has moved California’s archaic HIV laws out of the 1980s and into the 21st century,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California. “SB 239 will do much to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV – it is not only fair, but it’s good public health. When people are no longer penalized for knowing their status, it encourages them to come forward, get tested and get treatment. That’s good for all Californians.”