On Friday, California governor Jerry Brown signed a historic bill (SB 293) that finally addresses outdated laws that unjustly criminalize those living with HIV. That's cause for celebration. The only problem is, that's not how the story is being reported by the media at large—which ultimately undermines the bill’s intended goal of reducing stigma around the chronic condition.
“California Lowers Penalty for Knowingly Exposing Partners to HIV,” read CNN’s headline about the passing of SB 293. The Los Angeles Times' headline, “Knowingly Exposing Others to HIV Will No Longer Be a Felony in California,” was no better.
While these headlines are technically correct, they are also misleading and contradictory to the true intentions of the bill. Yes, SB 293 does reduce the "crime" of knowingly transmitting or attempting to transmit HIV, dropping it from a felony to a misdemeanor (bringing it in line with penalties for willful exposure to other sexually transmitted infections), but that is just one part of it. The bill's primary goal is to address several outdated laws and sentences that were created over 30 years ago, at the height of stigma and ignorance around HIV.
Unfortunately, with these headlines and articles still focusing on HIV exposure being a crime, they may be unwittingly (or wittingly) perpetuating stigma. Fear of prosecution and public shaming because of laws that criminalize HIV-positive folks can cause many to not get tested or seek care. The creators and prominent supporters of SB 293 are clear that the goal of the bill is to reduce stigma in order to facilitate the fight against the disease, for example by increasing the number of people getting tested and into treatment—efforts which are proven to reduce HIV transmission.
“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, who helped write SB 293. “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.”
Another issue with these headlines that focus on the “crime” of HIV exposure, is that they’re missing the big story that needs to get out into the public’s knowledge database—the medical and scientific revolution that has occurred since these laws were enacted decades ago.
Today, poz people on antiretroviral treatment are living long healthy lives, and now have life-expectancies nearly the same as people who are not HIV-positive. And then there’s the new U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable) consensus, endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and hundreds of other world health organizations. The U=U consensus states that people who have un undetectable viral load via ART therapy have a zero chance of transmitting HIV to a sexual partner, even without the use of a condom — a fact backed by years of extensive scientific research.
But despite these wonderful advancements in treatment and quality of life for those living with HIV, most people simply are unaware of them. Instead of focusing on the criminal aspects of the bill, headlines could have read, “New Bill in California Aims to Reduce HIV Stigma” or “The Law is Finally Catching Up to Advancements in HIV Care.” Sadly in this instance, the media has missed a perfect opportunity to greatly reduce stigma and increase knowledge of HIV.