German Pop Star Publicly Arrested for HIV Tranmission

Fiona Pettitt

Criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure places blame on one sexual partner rather than encouraging equal responsibility in safe sex.

I was diagnosed HIV
positive in 1991. I am a member and
staff member of the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW), which is the only
international network run for and by HIV positive women. ICW promotes the voices of and advocates for
changes in policies that improve the lives of all HIV positive women.  We believe that all laws that uphold the
criminalization of HIV transmission should be abolished.  Criminalization is counterproductive to goals
related to rights-based approaches to public health, reinforces stigma toward
persons who are often already marginalized and fosters feelings of chaos and fear around HIV and sex.

On April 11th, Nadja Benaissa, a member of
the highly successful German pop band No Angels, was
arrested
in Frankfurt for alleged criminal HIV exposure and
transmission. She was placed on remand on the basis "that the strong suspicion
of a crime and the risk she would reoffend were too great to ignore." She was
released from prison 11 days after her detention.

HIV is a medical condition which promotes
highly emotive responses from many quarters, many of which are based on lack of
information and resultant fear, rather than on scientific fact. Many facts in the
arrest and prosecution of Nadja Benaissa demonstrate the violation of rights
faced by HIV positive individuals when HIV transmission and exposure is
criminalized. 

Benaissa
was very publicly arrested before she went on stage at her concert in Frankfurt
and her HIV status revealed by the public prosecutor’s office.  This public arrest and disclosure of her
status is a violation of her rights to confidentiality and privacy.  Further, this treatment increases stigma and
discrimination against positive women by making people believe HIV positive
women are all malicious criminals.

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Allegedly,
Benaissa did not inform her partners of her HIV serostatus.  As an HIV positive woman I believe that it is
each person’s responsibility to ensure that they are engaging in healthy and
safe sexual behavior.  Criminalization
of HIV transmission and exposure places blame on one sexual partner rather than
encouraging equal responsibility in safe sex – exposing oneself to HIV is part of
the risk of having sex.  It is unfair to
place all blame on the person with HIV.

While in prison, Benaissa was kept from her daughter.  Criminalizing HIV positive women specifically
means that the primary caretakers of their families and children are being put
into jail.

The case of Benaissa represents some of the worst aspects of
criminalization of HIV transmission and exposure: increased stigma, worsening
discrimination, actively violating confidentiality, creating hysteria about HIV
positive women as HIV vectors, and removal of a caretaker from her home and
child. 

As an HIV positive woman I am outraged that anyone be put through this
ordeal and that judicial systems are prepared to enact laws that
violate our rights in this way and in circumstances that are tainted by stigma
and discrimination.  ICW is actively working to end the criminalization of  people living with HIV by advocating
directly at the national and international level, supporting individuals who
have been arrested through participation in broad based advocacy, and providing a deeper understanding of how criminalization
laws will directly impact the lives of HIV positive women.  

Commentary Sexual Health

‘Not the Enemy, But the Answer’: Elevating the Voices of Black Women Living With HIV

Dazon Dixon Diallo

National HIV Testing Day is June 27. But for longtime advocates, ensuring that the women most affected by the epidemic can get and influence care and policy is the work of many years.

I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.

June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.

This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.

A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”

As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.

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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.

Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.

The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.

As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.

Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.

Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.

“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”

Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.

Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.

Commentary Politics

Punish Women for Abortion? Spare the Outrage: That IS the ‘Mainstream’ Anti-Choice Position

Jodi Jacobson

No matter how much the anti-choice movement dissembles, there is only one reality: The laws and policies pushed by the movement and the politicians it supports punish women both explicitly and implicitly.

In 2014, Jennifer Whalen, a nursing home aide, was sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in jail. Her crime? Trying to obtain medication abortion pills for her teenage daughter, who was facing an unwanted pregnancy. Whalen, who was charged with “performing an illegal abortion,” bought the pills online because the nearest clinic from her home was 75 miles away, and because Pennsylvania has a 24-hour mandated waiting period requiring patients to make two visits to a clinic to obtain an abortion. Without health insurance, and facing loss of income from time off, the costs—of two round-trips to the clinic, a possible overnight stay in Harrisburg, and the procedure itself—became insurmountable. Out of desperation, Whalen turned to the Internet.

Whalen was arrested for a simple reason: Her daughter was pregnant and did not want to be.

Earlier this week, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump asserted that women who have abortions should face “some form of punishment.” He since “walked it back,” political parlance for being too honest or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. In response to his initial statement, however, the GOP and leaders of anti-choice groups collectively fell all over themselves criticizing Trump for what they declared to be a position outside the “mainstream” of their movement. Their outcry was political theater at its most insidious: Anti-choice leaders know that their real intentions—to ban abortion and punish women who have them—is a deeply unpopular opinion. So they feign concern for women by talking about “safety,” and “caring,” and “life.” No matter how much they dissemble, however, there is only one reality: The laws and policies pushed by the anti-choice movement and the politicians it supports already punish women both explicitly and implicitly, including by sending them to prison.

The anti-choice movement seeks to punish women through a web of entrapment that, spun just a little bit at a time, harms women in ways that are less noticeable to the rest of us because they don’t make headlines until women start ending up in jail.

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First, anti-choice legislators pass laws to mandate medically unnecessary waiting periods, driving up the costs of abortion care and insulting the intelligence of women who don’t need to be told to wait to figure out how to deal with their own realities. Then, they pass laws to require clinics to mimic ambulatory surgical centers, though abortion is among the safest procedures a person can obtain and there is no reason not to do them in a clinic. This forces many clinics to close because providers can’t recoup the costs of medically unnecessary building renovations, and in turn it leaves women in large swaths of a state without access to care. Then, having cut off many avenues to legal safe abortion care, lawmakers pass laws to make medication abortion inaccessible, again on medically unnecessary grounds. They also pass laws mandating that only doctors can perform abortions, even though nurses and nurse practitioners are perfectly capable of being trained to perform early abortions safely and effectively, as well as to administer medication abortion. Finally, they pass laws making self-induced abortion a crime. Put these together and the anti-choice movement has made a safe, legal abortion virtually impossible to obtain. So when, in desperation, women go to any length to end an unintended pregnancy, legislators punish them further by making them criminals and putting them into jail.

It should not be surprising then that in many states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Utah, where a raft of laws similar to those mentioned above have been passed, women are taking matters into their own hands and paying the price of anti-choice laws. For example, a recent study estimated that in Texas, where abortion access has been severely limited as a result of the omnibus legislation known as HB 2, between 100,000 and 240,000 women have attempted to self-induce. Many of these women, already vulnerable because they are poor or undocumented or are made subject to racial profiling, are policed every day at medical centers and at border crossings where they go to seek medication to terminate a pregnancy. Medication that, by the way, taken correctly is completely safe and could be used for self-induction were it legal.

Women who attempt to self-induce abortion are now routinely charged with crimes. In Georgia, Kenlissia Jones was arrested in 2015 for allegedly using misoprostol to self-induce her abortion. Jones was originally facing two charges: “malice murder” and “possession of a dangerous drug” (i.e. the misoprostol). The murder charge against Jones was dropped, but she still faces punishment for the drug charge. That same year in Arkansas a nurse, Karen Collins, was arrested and faced the charge of “performing an unlicensed abortion” (a class D felony in her state) for allegedly providing a drug to a woman that would allow her to terminate her pregnancy. And in Tennessee, Anna Yocca was charged with attempted murder for a failed self-induced abortion attempt with a coat hanger. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted murder charge but said they would still pursue criminal charges against Yocca, likely for aggravated assault.

These cases are the product of anti-choice laws promoted relentlessly by Americans United for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council, and others. The fact that the use of these laws to harass, frighten, indict, and imprison women is never protested by anti-choice groups tells you everything you need to know about the movement’s intentions. Punishment.

Moreover, those who seek to outlaw abortion are forever finding new and creative ways to punish women. Feticide laws, for example, were ostensibly created to allow for the prosecution of third-party actors who were violent toward pregnant women and, in turn, harmed a fetus. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states now have feticide or “fetal homicide” laws on the books, and in 23 of these states, these laws can be applied at any stage of pregnancy. While these laws were not originally created with the intent of criminalizing pregnant women for actions they took during their own pregnancy, they are now widely used to do just that. “Pro-life” prosecutors are arresting and indicting women under such laws when they deem that either an action or lack of action by a pregnant woman causes harm to a fetus or leads to pregnancy loss. In fact, these are de facto fetal “personhood” laws of the kind promoted by anti-choice organizations such as Susan B. Anthony List.

There is Bei Bei Shuai, who was charged with murder and attempted feticide for attempting suicide while pregnant. Shuai sat in jail for 435 days until she was released on bail (where she remained under surveillance by an electronic ankle monitor). In August 2013, nearly two and a half years after her prosecution began, she accepted a plea deal to the misdemeanor charge of “criminal recklessness.”

There is Purvi Patel, who was charged with neglect of a dependent and feticide after having a pregnancy loss that the state deemed was a self-induced abortion. She is currently serving a 41-year sentence while her case is on appeal. In three states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota—laws on the books allow for the involuntary civil commitment of pregnant women for “not following doctors’ orders.” Recent cases in which these laws were applied include those of Alicia Beltran and Tamara Loertscher in Wisconsin. As ProPublica has noted in “How States Handle Drug Use During Pregnancy,” hundreds and potentially thousands of women in three states—Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee—have faced criminal prosecution under “chemical endangerment laws” that allow for the criminal prosecution of drug use during pregnancy. The anti-choice movement has pushed for and supported these laws.

This is not punishment?

And then consider AJ, a woman on whose case we reported earlier this week. AJ’s teenage daughter became pregnant. Her teacher somehow insinuated herself into the daughter’s decision-making process. Unbenownst to her mother, the teacher called another person, a stranger to this teen, who took her to a so-called crisis pregnancy center, at which the young woman was pressured under threat of “hell and damnation” to sign a document stating she did not want an abortion. These anti-choicers sent the document, containing a raft of personal information including address and social security number, to clinics and police stations in the surrounding area. When AJ’s daughter later decided, after confiding in her mother, that she did in fact want to terminate the pregnancy, they went to a clinic in Memphis, Tennessee. There, AJ found herself threatened with arrest for feticide for “coercing” her daughter to have an abortion. While there was no substance to this charge, the whole episode frightened a teen and her mom and further delayed her abortion. There are several layers of “punishment” here, including frightening a young woman with lies, tricking her into signing a bogus legal document, seeking to get her to delay the abortion until it was too late, and then threatening to arrest her mother.

There are innumerable other ways in which the anti-choice movement is actively punishing women, by, for example, supporting monitoring and harassment of women outside clinics and hospitals, making immigrant women fear arrest, and denying women access to abortion for severe fetal and developmental anomalies while slashing state funding of support for children who are severely disabled.

I could go on. The fact that these laws and policies are passed and employed throughout the country, that they  infantalize, criminalize, and otherwise treat women as children without agency is part of an overall agenda aimed at punishing women and is becoming deeply entrenched in the U.S. legal system as a direct result of the advocacy of anti-choice groups.

The anti-choice movement is built on lies. And those lies continue to be perpetuated both by its leaders, and by a media unable, unwilling, or too self-absorbed and preoccuppied with access to politicians to actually understand and report on what is happening throughout the country.