Decades-Old Laws Still Consider HIV a ’Deadly Weapon’
The incident involving Darren Chiacchi, an equestrian champion, in central Florida, made headlines. The incident also raises a host of legal and ethical issues involving responsibility for revealing one's HIV status to potential sex partners.
The statutes have been on the books since the early days of the epidemic. Most were enacted out of fear and anxiety, when it wasn't clear just how HIV is transmitted and contracting AIDS was considered a death sentence.
Chiacchi led the U.S. equestrian team to the bronze medal in 2004. Authorities arrested the Ocala resident in January. He pleaded not guilty in February and is scheduled to go on trial in June. If found guilty, he could face 30 years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon.
Chiacchia and the unnamed boyfriend began dating in February 2009 after meeting through a gay web site. The boyfriend broke off the relationship after discovering medical records reporting Chiacchia's HIV status. The state attorney prosecuting Chiacchia has declined to say whether the boyfriend, who was HIV-negative before the relationship began, has since tested positive for the virus.
The case is the latest in a string of incidents news media have covered in recent months. In March, prosecutors in Houston, Texas, decided to upgrade charges against a man accused of having sex with a 15-year-old boy to aggravated sexual assault This text will be the linkwith a deadly weapon because he has HIV.
In perhaps the weirdest case, a jury in Holland convicted two men of assault for attempting to infect 14 victims with blood containing the HIV virus in November 2008.
People who deliberately infect others with HIV (most people would consider monsters not too strong a term to describe them) date back to the beginnings of the epidemic.
Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant whom epidemiologists identified as the notorious Patient Zero, traveled the globe and allegedly infected people in such early AIDS epicenters as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris and London. He told his numerous sex partners he had the "gay cancer" after exposing them to the virus.
Discriminatory - Except When Intentional
Experts EDGE interviewed were unanimous in agreeing that anyone who intentionally infects individuals with the HIV virus should be prosecuted, but they maintained that laws specifically targeting HIV-positive people are discriminatory.
"There are many things that are transmitted sexually that carry significant risk of death," Dr. Stephen Boswell, president and CEO of Fenway Health in Boston, said in a phone interview. "Unless there are laws for every infection that you need to inform a partner about, it seems rather inconsistent to me that they would focus on HIV. Some of these risks are every bit as great." He called some of the reaction to the virus when it was first identified in the early 1980s, such as the laws enacted, "outright prejudice."
Such laws are unnecessary and have no proven deterrent effect, according to Bebe Anderson, HIV project director at Lambda Legal. The organization's website lists the statutes in the 32 states.
Only some of them require HIV-positive individuals to inform sex partners of their status, Anderson pointed out in an e-mail interview. Others criminalize conduct whether or not the person informs a sex partner. Several criminalize conduct that poses virtually no risk of HIV transmission.
"Lambda Legal is opposed to laws that single out people living with HIV for prosecution or enhanced penalties based on conduct that would not be illegal if engaged in by someone who doesn't have HIV," Anderson said.
Rather than offering protection from HIV, the laws actually cause some harm, she pointed out.
"These laws serve to stigmatize people with HIV," Anderson explained. "HIV stigma has been shown to have a detrimental effect on both HIV prevention efforts and treatment of people living with HIV. It leads some people to avoid getting tested, refrain from obtaining needed healthcare or forego antiretroviral medications."
Media coverage of prosecutions makes matters worse, she maintained. "It tends to sensationalize the issue and creates a false impression that intentional transmission is a widespread problem, when in fact such incidents are very rare."