April 22nd, 2010

Should Transmission of HIV be a Crime?

legal scalesNot according to Journal Watch editor and New York Times writer Abigail Zuger, writing here in the Times.  She’s referring to the recent Darren Chiacchia case, where his former partner has filed a legal complaint that Chiacchia did not disclose having HIV — potentially a first-degree felony in Florida.

Were it a matter of science alone, all those AIDS statutes could be rescinded tomorrow. But the science was only a small part of the panic that created them. And effective treatment has not altered the rest of that potent emotional brew: the virus still sows terror, uncertainty, shame and endless complications, whether the infection is concealed or revealed…

Now we think we know better, but do we really? We blame that coughing woman in the subway for our cold, the giant meat company for our food poisoning, all manner of chemicals and electromagnetic radiation for our cancers, and fast-food outlets for ourdiabetes and heart disease. We cannot experience illness without casting around for blame.

Yet at the same time we believe deeply in prevention. Surely if we watch our diets and get our mammograms and colonoscopies, wash our hands, take whatever vitamin is foremost in the news and eat our burgers well done, we can avert bad things. Whole generations have now grown up knowing that sensible people “play safe,” with the overriding implication that if you catch a sexually transmitted disease, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Then the key point:

And so whose fault is a new H.I.V. infection, really? Is it mine, for giving it to you, or is it yours, for being stupid and cavalier enough to get it?

(Sorry for the lengthy quotes, she’s such a great writer it was irresistible.)

I mostly agree with Abbie that effective treatment of HIV has changed the risk equation profoundly, and that what originally motivated these laws — transmission of HIV was murder!  — no longer holds.  But remember that some (most?) might think that transmission of any infection — herpes, syphilis, MRSA, salmonella from peanut butter, hepatitis A from spinach — is potentially a crime, provided there’s evidence of deceit or negligence.

And people holding this view will continue to see these HIV statutes as completely justified.  As a result, don’t expect them to be removed from the books anytime soon.

One Response to “Should Transmission of HIV be a Crime?”

  1. Brian Foley says:

    You say that transmitting salmonella or other pathogens is potentially a crime. This is true. There are plenty of laws against criminal negligence, and laws against attempted murder etc with ANY weapon. It is exactly for that reason that laws written specifically about HIV do not make sense.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

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NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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