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Iowa UUs win victories in decriminalizing HIV status

Unitarian Universalists lead efforts to decriminalize HIV status in Iowa.
By Elaine McArdle

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In more than 30 states, being HIV-positive can land you in prison under certain circumstances—if you spit on someone, say, or have sex without revealing your HIV status, even when the chances of transmitting the virus are negligible and the other person never gets it.

Iowa has taken the lead in repealing scientifically outdated criminal laws related to HIV status. Several Unitarian Universalists have been instrumental in huge victories there in recent months, including unanimous passage of a new statute that reflects modern understanding of HIV transmission. These UUs helped focus attention on the 25-year prison sentence of an HIV-positive Iowa man who infected no one, and, in June, they helped organize the first national conference on decriminalizing HIV, which drew people from 40 states, Canada, Great Britain, and Puerto Rico.

With these successes, their new focus is on changing criminal laws in other states so people aren’t imprisoned based on outdated and grossly inaccurate misinformation about HIV/AIDS.

“Iowa UUs should be very proud,” said Terry Lowman, a member of the UU Fellowship of Ames, Iowa, who launched a statewide advocacy group, Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness Advocacy Network (IUUWAN), to focus on this and other social justice issues.

Most HIV-status criminal statutes are based on grossly outdated misunderstandings about the virus, including that it can be transmitted through saliva, he noted. Activists say that it’s critically important to encourage people to know their HIV status and receive treatment, because someone in appropriate treatment for HIV reduces his or her chances of infecting someone else by 96 percent. Punishing people for being HIV-positive, however, discourages them from seeking treatment and increases the risk of transmission—and prosecutions tend to have a disproportionate impact on low-income people of color, Lowman added.

Scott Clair, an HIV researcher and member of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, has been particularly instrumental in the changes in Iowa. About nine years ago, Clair founded CHAIN, the Community HIV and Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network. After CHAIN successfully lobbied the state for financial support for life-saving drugs for low- and middle-income AIDS patients, Clair suggested it take up the issue of Iowa’s HIV-related criminal statute, which he saw as a terrible injustice.

Passed in 1998, when AIDS was widely regarded as a death sentence, the Iowa statute made it a Class B felony for someone who knowingly had HIV to engage in “intimate conduct” with another person—even if his or her viral load was so low the virus could not be transmitted and, in fact, their partner never contracted HIV. A few years later the penalties were increased so that anyone convicted under the law had to register for life as a sex offender. Iowa became one of the leading states for HIV-related criminal prosecutions, even though it has comparatively few HIV-positive residents, according to the Des Moines Register.

In a highly controversial 2008 verdict, Iowa resident Nick Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a single sexual encounter because he didn’t tell his partner he was HIV-positive—even though Rhoades was on highly effective antiviral drugs and had been told by his doctor that his chances of transmission were negligible, had worn a condom, and his partner did not contract HIV.

With people like Rhoades in mind, CHAIN worked with a number of partners, including the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, Lambda Legal, the League of Women Voters, and One Iowa—the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization. One Iowa’s executive director, Donna Red Wing, is a member of the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship.

Clair helped organize a series of panel discussions around the state—some at UU congregations—featuring Rhoades, other people victimized by the HIV laws, and experts from the Iowa Department of Public Health. Clair said the Department of Public Health was a critically important ally. The advocates educated legislators and kept up pressure, and the law passed unanimously this spring, with the governor signing the bill in May.

The new law got rid of the sex registry requirement, added several other serious diseases to the statute so that HIV/AIDS is not singled out, and required taking into consideration not only whether the HIV-positive person intended to transmit the virus but also whether such transmission was possible—and actually occurred. “If someone is actively following their drug treatment regimen, that is a valid defense,” said Clair, “because we know if they have an undetectable viral load, the risk of transmission is nil.”

While that effort was underway, Mark Kassis, who is married to Lowman and also a member of the Ames fellowship, led a campaign to get Rhoades out of a maximum-security prison and solitary confinement, with a number of UUs writing letters to Rhoades’s judge. Rhoades was eventually released from prison on probation, but he was required to register as a sex offender and wear an ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts. In June, through legal efforts by Lambda Legal and significant activism by Iowa UUs and others, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed Rhoades’s conviction, and he is no longer a registered sex offender.

Shortly thereafter, at the “HIV Is Not a Crime” conference in Grinnell, Iowa, which was sponsored by the Sero Project, a national organization focused on destigmatizing HIV/AIDS, Rhoades and another man, Donald Bogardus, had their ankle monitors removed by State Senator Matt McCoy, a leader in advocating for the law’s reform.

The conference, Lowman said, “was a fabulous success.” Activists from other states “were really shocked that Iowa would be the place to get this done. You’d expect California or Washington State, but not Iowa—but we did it.”

Clair and others are also heartened by new support from the federal government. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article on HIV-related criminal statutes, and in July the DOJ issued a guide arguing that these statutes are based on scientifically unsupportable understanding of HIV transmission. As a result, Lambda Legal is calling for a national moratorium on HIV-based criminal prosecutions until all state laws are reformed to reflect the DOJ’s guidelines, including requiring intent to harm and significant risk of actual transmission before someone can be prosecuted.

Photograph (above): Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signs a bill May 30, 2014, reforming the state’s laws HIV transmission laws (courtesy Community HIV and Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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