A Marietta Republican is sponsoring a measure to examine the state’s HIV criminalization laws, which advocates argue are outdated and stigmatize people with HIV. 

Rep. Sharon Cooper (photo), who chairs the influential House Health & Human Services Committee, introduced House Resolution 240 on Feb. 14 to create a Joint Study Committee on Reforming HIV Related Criminal Laws.

“It was brought to my attention that a lot of the laws on our books are older, and that a lot of the laws on HIV were done in the eighties and we’ve certainly had a lot of change in science since that time,” Cooper said.

In Georgia, HIV criminalization laws make it a felony for an HIV-positive person to engage in sex without first disclosing their status. The laws also criminalize acts like spitting – when the behavior is directed at law enforcement officers with penalties that include up to 20 years in prison.

The current Georgia law also doesn’t take into account issues like condom usage or advising a partner to take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) after sexual intercourse – acts which reduce the likelihood of transmission. LGBT and HIV activists have blasted HIV criminalization laws in nearly three-dozen states as a failure, criticizing the statues for adding stigma to HIV, keeping people from getting tested, and oppressing already marginalized populations such as LGBT people. 

"The law in Georgia doesn’t require intent to infect, it doesn’t require likelihood of transmission because it has things like spit, urine, feces in it. It doesn’t require transmission," Nina Martinez, a member of the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia, said during a panel discussion last year.

Lawmakers create study committees to hear expert testimony and collect information about an issue ahead of possible legislative action. Cooper’s resolution would create a 12-member committee – five members each from the House and Senate, along with a representative of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council and the state Department of Public Health – that would meet and issue a report of its findings by Dec. 1.

“Sometimes you have to take baby steps,” Cooper said. “Bring in the experts to give you the background and the academic backing to back up which route you decide to go.”

One option the committee could study is completely eliminating HIV criminalization laws, according to Cooper’s legislation:

“The best practice would be for states to reform these laws to eliminate HIV-specific criminal penalties except in two distinct circumstances. First, states may wish to retain criminal liability when a person who knows he or she is HIV positive commits a (non-HIV specific) sex crime when there is a risk of transmission (e.g., rape or other sexual assault). The second circumstance is when the individual knows he or she is HIV positive and the evidence clearly demonstrates that individual's intent was to transmit the virus and that the behavior engaged in had a significant risk of transmission, whether or not transmission actually occurred.”

Another option the committee could explore is keeping current laws in place but updating them to reflect the actual routes of transmission that are possible, eliminating actions such as  biting and spitting. The Center for Disease Control & Prevention supports reforming HIV criminalization laws.

HR 240 has been assigned to the House Special Rules committee and undergoes the same route to approval as other legislation. If it gets approval from the committee, then it moves to a House vote and then to the Senate for consideration.

The resolution has a handful of influential co-sponsors, including Rep. Wendell Willard, a Republican and chair of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Democrat and Minority Whip, and Rep. Bruce Broadrick, a Republican from Dalton.

Bill would OK expedited partner treatment for STDS

 

Cooper is also sponsoring another sexual and reproductive health related measure. House Bill 360 allows physicians to prescribe medications for certain sexually transmitted diseases – namely chlamydia and gonorrhea – to somebody’s partner without first examining the partner. Expedited partner therapy (EPT) is recommended by the CDC to help control the spread of certain STDs.

“Normally the physicians have to see somebody before they order a medication, and sometimes it’s very hard to get the partner to come in,” Cooper said. 

“[EPT] allows one part of the duo to save face, and hopefully take the medicine and then make sure they are both clear so they are not just reinfecting each other,” she added.

Some 38 states currently allow this practice. HB 360 has been assigned to Cooper’s Health & Human Services Committee. Cooper said a version of this bill introduced last year was passed in the House and was held up in the Senate.

Neither the resolution or the bill has been scheduled for a hearing.

UPDATE | Cooper's HB 360 passed out of committee on Tuesday.

 

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