12/10/2013 11:23 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Outdated Laws Preserve HIV Stigma

Our nation and our science have come a long way since HIV/AIDS began mysteriously claiming lives in the United States. Unfortunately, many of our laws haven't kept up.

Thirty-two states have criminal statutes based on perceived exposure to HIV -- regardless of the actual risk of transmission -- and 13 states have laws that criminalize certain acts, like spitting, by people with HIV/AIDS. (It's not possible to transmit HIV by saliva.)

Aside from being charged under HIV-specific criminalization statutes, people living with HIV have even been charged under aggravated assault, attempted murder, and bioterrorism statutes.

It's simply not fair that someone having been diagnosed with a treatable medical condition should automatically be subject to a different set of criminal laws. It's time our laws catch up to our science.

Today I'm introducing the Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal ("REPEAL") HIV Discrimination Act, a bill to require an interagency review of federal and state laws that criminalize certain actions by people living with HIV.

These laws run counter to effective public health strategies, discourage HIV testing, and perpetuate unfair stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS -- people who are our friends, family, and neighbors. Rather than recognizing that HIV/AIDS is a treatable medical condition, these laws perpetuate the idea that HIV is a deadly weapon and people with HIV/AIDS are dangerous criminals.

Earlier this year, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS issued a resolution saying that "current criminal laws require modernization to eliminate HIV-specific statutes or application of general criminal law that treats HIV status, or the use of condoms or other measures to prevent HIV transmission, as the basis for criminal prosecution or sentence enhancement." The Council called for exactly the type of federal review that the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act would require.

U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives back in May. H.R. 1843 now has 34 cosponsors.

These bills are supported by more than 150 HIV/AIDS, LGBT, military, public health, racial justice, religious, and women's organizations have endorsed the legislation, including the Center for HIV Law and Policy, AIDS United, Sero Project, National Minority AIDS Council, American Civil Liberties Union, OutServe -- Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Human Rights Campaign, American Academy of HIV Medicine, Black AIDS Institute, American Psychological Association, Lambda Legal, and National Council of Jewish Women.

As divided and dysfunctional as Congress has been these last few years, HIV/AIDS is one issue that has been and remains bipartisan. While right now the Senate bill lacks a Republican cosponsor, I am hopeful that will change soon.