Reagan Commission Member Calls For End To HIV Criminalization Laws

Dr. Colleen Conway-Welch

Dr. Colleen Conway-Welch was a member of President Reagan’s original commission to investigate AIDS, and she now says it’s “probably past time to go back” and reevaluate the laws criminalizing HIV per the commission’s recommendations. These recommendations included creating “affirmative duties” for those infected with HIV to disclose their status to sexual partners or be subject to criminal penalties. All 50 states have policies that could allow for prosecuting a person for intentional transmission of HIV, including 39 with HIV-specific criminal statutes. According to Conway-Welch, these laws don’t reflect current science:

CONWAY-WELCH: Most of the criminal laws were put into place in the early 90s because people were scared, and it would make sense to recommend that they go back. In medicine now, there is a real push for evidence-based interventions, and I think that for those laws that were not evidence-based, I think it would be time to go back.

Indeed, laws punishing the possible transmission of HIV serve more to humor vengeance and fuel anti-HIV stigma than to actually curb infection rates. A study released in July showed that HIV criminalization discouraged individuals from getting tested for HIV or seeking care once diagnosed out of fear for being exposed for prosecution. A similar study in Canada found that because of the laws, many will not get tested or even discuss sexual practices with nurses and physicians, and will in fact have higher rates of unsafe sex. Meanwhile, there is little evidence to show that the laws have any beneficial effect in fighting the epidemic.

Protecting people from HIV infection is an important priority, but maintaining a public bias against those who are positive is anathema to the cause. Efforts should focus more on prevention and less on punishment.