Marking the first change in state health code regarding HIV transmission in nearly a decade, Iowa Governor Terry E. Branstad signed a landmark bill on May 30 that will curb rampant convictions of people living with HIV for transmitting the virus by redefining the law to ensure only those who intend to spread HIV or behave with "reckless disregard" are penalized. The new HIV transmission bill should also ease an unspoken but clearly present discrimination toward HIV-positive Iowans in the state's legal justice system.
The bill, Senate File 2297, changes the Iowa Health Code so that proof of conduct with "reckless disregard" or intent to transmit HIV, or other communicable diseases like meningococcal disease and hepatitis of any form, is required before the infected person being accused can be charged. For years, the bill's passage has been pushed by more than 30 individuals and groups - including such influential entities as the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, the Iowa Department of Public Health, the Iowa Attorney General's Office, the HIV Community Coalition, AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the University of Iowa - and ultimately resulted in the law passing unanimously through the state's House and Senate on April 30.
"We've seen people sentenced to 20 years in prison without even transmitting the virus," said Joseph Terrill, Director of Community Mobilization for AHF. "The passage of this bill will change how laws in Iowa are skewed against those living with infectious diseases, and it is a testament to the collaborative advocacy work being done by citizens and groups in the state with whom we were proud to partner on this years-long effort under the leadership of Iowan Tami Haught of CHAIN. This work is a template that advocates from other states can follow to end codified discrimination against individuals who are HIV-positive."
The bill was signed just ahead of Iowa's first "HIV Is Not A Crime" Conference, which took place all last week in the town of Grinnell. The conference, from June 2nd through the 5th at Grinnell College in Iowa, was itself a historic gathering that looked at strategies for replicating Iowa's success in other states. Organized by and for HIV-positive individuals and their advocates, the conference was a game changer for HIV decriminalization advocacy.
Major health code adjustments that arise from the bill include the changing of the definition of "exposure" to mean "engaging in conduct that poses a substantial risk of transmission" and protecting indicted individuals living with a virus if they are on a treatment regimen and employing "practical means to prevent transmission." It narrows the scope of criminalization to those infected individuals who knowingly expose an uninfected person with intent to transmit the virus or those who expose an uninfected person with "reckless disregard" as to whether or not the person contracts the virus. If intent or disregard is proven, the accused faces felony penalties of varying gravities whether the exposed individual contracts the virus or not.
Evidenced knowledge of one's HIV-positive status and proof of engagement in conduct that carries potential for exposure are on their own insufficient for proving intent or disregard, according to the bill. The infected individual is also protected if they informed their partner of their status and the uninfected partner consented to exposure with that knowledge. Scientifically evaluated HIV tests are to be conducted and reviewed by medical practitioners to prove anyone accused of criminal transmission was in fact positive at the time of the alleged assault.
The bill is also significant in the ways it intrinsically updates Iowa state laws to meet the needs and circumstances of today's Iowans. It repeals an archaic law that outlawed certain sexual conduct between unmarried individuals, and also strikes down a health code provision that would allow a county attorney to simply use a positive HIV test result as enough evidence to file charges of criminal transmission.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF)