Georgia House committee passes HIV decriminalization bill

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on a Georgia House committee unanimously advanced a bill on Tuesday that would modernize the state’s HIV laws. 

Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta, said it was past time to update the laws.

“We have learned a lot since the early 1980s, when many of our HIV laws were passed,” she said during Tuesday's Health & Human Services Committee meeting. “We know now a lot more about how you can become infected, and it is time for us to remove the stigma that keeps people that are HIV-positive from getting treatment, which puts the rest of us at risk for further infection.”

Cooper is chair of the committee and a co-sponsor of House Bill 719. Rep. Deborah Silcox (photo), a Republican from Sandy Springs, introduced the bill in April. The legislation now moves to the Rules Committee, which will decide if the full House will vote on it.

Current Georgia law makes it a crime for people living with HIV to have sex or donate blood without disclosing their status. It's a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. State law also criminalizes spitting at or using bodily fluids on a law enforcement officer by a person living with HIV, an offense that can carry up to 20 years in prison.

The bill would revise state law so it's only illegal to intentionally transmit HIV during sex. The legislation would also downgrade the punishment from a felony to a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in prison. The revisions to the law would also decriminalize spitting at and using bodily fluids on a law enforcement officer by a person living with HIV.

Cooper said earlier this month that current Georgia HIV laws “make people so biased and afraid.” She planned to meet with Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, to discuss the bill on Feb. 19.  

Georgia is one of some three-dozen states that criminalize a lack of HIV disclosure, whether or not the specific act actually exposed the sex partner to HIV. Activists and lawmakers have tried for years to modernize state law by decriminalizing non-disclosure of the disease to sex partners.

Rep. Mark Newton, a Republican from Augusta, is a co-sponsor of the legislation along with Silcox and Cooper. The Democratic sponsors include Reps. Michele Henson of Stone Mountain, Karla Drenner of Avondale Estates and Sam Park of Lawrenceville. Drenner and Park are two of the five openly LGBTQ members of the legislature.

People in Augusta, Rome and Athens have been arrested for HIV exposure over the past year.