What’s the impact of criminalizing HIV transmission?

Today, the International Planned Parenthood Federation published an online collection of interviews, Behind Bars, which exposes the effect criminal laws on HIV transmission are having on people’s lives. The stories illustrate the personal and professional dilemmas faced by doctors, lawyers, researchers and advocates; among them a doctor who was forced to aid a police investigation against her ethical principles, a woman living with HIV who prosecuted her former partner and a lawyer who advocated in an HIV transmission case.

Around the world, criminal laws are increasingly being used to prosecute HIV transmission or exposure. But, as the interviews reveal, criminal law is a blunt instrument for HIV prevention. Behind Bars show how a simplistic ‘law-and-order’ response to HIV can intensify a climate of denial, secrecy and fear and provide a fertile breeding ground for the spread of HIV.

The drive for criminalization of wilful transmission of HIV is proving a costly intervention -  in terms of time and money spent on investigating individuals’ private lives and determining the burden of proof - and seems to have had limited impact on HIV prevention.

Former Director of the National AIDS Coordinating Committee working in Trinidad and Tobago, Amery Browne said: “There is broad recognition within Trinidad and Tobago, and in the Caribbean region, that the law as it stands is not serving us well in terms of an effective response to HIV. 

“With regard to the desire to control certain types of human behaviour—especially sexual or intimate behaviour—the law really is a very blunt instrument and it can be misused very often. We have seen countries making the wrong decisions in regard to HIV and AIDS.  I am very confident that in my part of the world societies are maturing to a point where it is easier to make improvements in the law and harder to make the wrong types of decisions.”

These stories show that criminalizing the transmission of HIV is actually undermining our efforts to prevent the spread of HIV. Fear of prosecution deters people from coming forward for testing and counselling; policing the bedroom effectively drives the problem underground. Behind Bars is a part of IPPF’s Criminalize hate, not HIV campaign and can be viewed at:  www.ippf.org.


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