HIV Disclosure Requirement Called Discriminatory

It's against the law in dozens of states not to tell your partner you have HIV. But critics say HIV isn't a death sentence anymore, making those laws out of date and discriminatory. Host Scott Simon talks with Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware about a bill he introduced this week that aims to change that.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

HIV and AIDS are now often considered chronic conditions, not a fatal disease, but there are still state laws that require people with HIV to disclose their condition and critics contend that those provisions discriminate against those who live with the virus. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware this week introduced the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act. He joins us from the capitol. Senator, thanks very much for being with us.

SENATOR CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And how do you believe laws requiring disclosure discriminate against people with HIV?

COONS: Well, we need laws that are based on modern science, that end the stigmatization of those living with HIV/AIDS and that are fair. We have dozens of states that have laws that are based on outdated science. This bill which I've introduced and which has also been introduced in the House, calls for a broad review of federal and state laws to make sure that we consider and hopefully remove things that needlessly discriminate against those living with the chronic condition of HIV/AIDS.

SIMON: Do you have what you consider kind of a textbook example of an unwise law?

COONS: Well, we've certainly got textbook examples of folks who've been charged under aggravated assault or attempted murder or bioterrorism statutes and we've got other states - there's 13 states actually - that have laws that criminalize acts, as I mentioned before, simply because you are HIV/AIDS positive. So acts like spitting or biting would not be criminalized except for your status as someone who has this chronic disease in those 13 states.

SIMON: Did those laws make sense at the time, let's say in the '80s and '90s when it was in fact a fatal condition?

COONS: They were motivated by the widespread fear at the time. There was a lack of real understanding of exactly how this disease was spread when it first emerged. And you may remember there were just tragic cases of children, for example, who were HIV positive because they'd gotten it from their mother or people who got it through blood transfusions being shunned from their schools, being shunned from their communities, being prevented from using public transportation or being thrown out of their housing simply because there was very widespread fear.

These statutes were passed in that period and they're based on outdated science and they perpetuate a discrimination against and marginalization of those who have what we now know to be a chronic condition that cannot be transmitted by saliva or by casual contact.

SIMON: At the same time, Senator, it's not exactly like having a pollen irritation, is it? I mean, do you have any concern this representation will make AIDS and HIV seem a little less serious than they are?

COONS: Well, I don't think we're at any risk of having the general public take HIV/AIDS less seriously. What we're trying to do is decriminalize the status of being HIV/AIDS positive. The idea that folks have been charged and, in some cases, convicted under statutes that treat them as dangerous criminals simply because they're HIV/AIDS positive, that perpetuate the idea that HIV is a deadly weapon somehow.

We need to move beyond a time when those laws were part of our culture and our legal system, but I don't think there's a real risk that that will erase legitimate concern about infection. Infection rates have not come down as much as they should. Probably 20 percent of Americans who are HIV positive don't yet know it and at least in my home community we have a fairly robust campaign to encourage testing and encourage folks to know their status and to be responsible for their own health.

SIMON: Chris Coons, Senator from Delaware speaking with us from the Capitol. Thank you very much, Senator.

COONS: Thank you, Scott.

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