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California senator moves to rewrite state's HIV transmission laws

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, left, talks with Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, at the Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. Wiener, and Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, introduced legislation on Thursday to add a non-binary gender option on state identifying documents including driver's licenses, birth certificates and identity cards.AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, left, talks with Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, at the Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.

A bill introduced in California this week aims to cut back on laws that criminalize the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV. 

Authors and supporters of the bill — titled SB 239 — argue the current laws around transmission of the virus are outdated, unfairly target HIV positive people and need to be "modernized." If enacted, the bill would put the transmission of HIV on par with the transmission of other serious communicable diseases, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Under the current law in California, it’s a felony offense to expose another person to HIV through unprotected sexual activity. If a person living with HIV has not disclosed their status to a partner before transmitting the virus, they can be sent to prison for up to eight years.

SB 239, if passed by California lawmakers, would lower the charge of intentionally transmitting the virus to a misdemeanor.

“Having HIV does not make you a criminal and we shouldn’t be singling out HIV among all infectious diseases for harsher treatment,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener, a co-author of the bill. “It’s very discriminatory.”

The state’s current laws on HIV transmission were written during the 1980s and '90s, when condoms were the only HIV prevention method and a diagnosis meant certain death. Now there are treatment options that reduce the risk of spreading HIV by almost 100 percent. People with HIV can now live healthy lives, if given proper treatment.

“We’re not in the 1980s anymore," Wiener said. "We need to base our laws on HIV on science and good public health — not on fear and stereotypes."

Between 1988 and June 2014, 800 HIV-positive people came into contact with the state’s criminal justice system due to their HIV status, according to a study published by UCLA’s Williams Institute. Among the 800 people identified, 56 percent were from Los Angeles County. The majority of them were people of color.

One of SB 239's supporters, the Positive Women's Network, tracks instances where women avoid reporting abuse out of fear of disclosing their HIV status. 

In one case, a black transgender woman living with HIV was afraid to report her rape, fearing prosecution for non-disclosure of her HIV status to her own rapist, Naina Khanna, the organization's executive director, told KPCC.

"She ended up not reporting the rape," Khanna said. "As you can see, these laws create a hostile climate around disclosing sexual assault."

Khanna and other supporters of SB 239 argue that the bill goes beyond the law, breaking down an institutionalized form of stigma around the disease.

“These laws are disproportionately used against women and people of color, and fuel stigma, violence and discrimination,” said Khanna in a statement released by the ACLU. “Despite their claims to protect vulnerable communities, these laws actually cause further harm, both to people living with HIV and the broader public.” 

In addition to Wiener, the bill was co-authored by Assembly members Todd Gloria and David Chiu and San Francisco Supervisor Jeff Sheehy. The ACLU of Southern California is co-sponsoring the bill. Dozens of health service providers and LGBT organizations across the state have also voiced their support of the bill.

Wiener said he expected a small amount of pushback from lawmakers who would be hesitant to reduce any of the state's criminal penalties.

"I'm sure we'll have a good discussion about it," he said. "But I do feel that now is an important time to take this step."