The Nebraska legislature has been really busy lately. As Robin Marty has reported, this week alone they’ve moved a parental notification bill forward and worked to ban “telemedicine” abortion. Now they’re working on a law that would make it a crime to assault a public safety officer with bodily fluids. The problem is that the law seems to be based on inaccurate information about how HIV and Hepatitis B and C are spread.
The law was introduced by Senator Mike Gloor of Grand Island who says he was approached by law enforcement officers who explained that incarcerated individuals frequently assault public safety officers not just by spitting on them but also by throwing urine and feces at them.
The law makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly assault a public safety officer with bodily fluids, which have been defined as “any naturally produced secretion or waste product generated by the human body and shall include, but not be limited to, any quantity of human blood, urine, saliva, mucus, vomitus, seminal fluid, or feces.”
Such an assault, however, becomes a Class IIIA felony “if the person committing the offense strikes with a bodily fluid the eyes, mouth, or skin of a public safety officer and knew the source of the bodily fluid was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C at the time the offense was committed.” Gloor apparently originally wrote the bill to say “lethal diseases” but thought better of it because: “We have a lot of immigrants in Nebraska, like from Sudan. I was worried about it covering some rare tropical disease.”
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Public health advocates fear that this will set back HIV prevention efforts by spreading misinformation and reinforcing stigmas that they’ve worked for decades to overcome. First, while health care professionals and educators have been suggesting that all individuals be tested for HIV; this law seems to penalize them for doing so. It’s only a felony, after all, if you know your status.
They are also concerned that the law is based on inaccurate information about how HIV and Hepatitis B and C are transmitted. While HIV, for example, may be present in all of the bodily fluids listed in the law, the CDC says that only blood, semen, vaginal fluid, spinal fluid, and breast milk contain large enough quantities to spread the virus. Moreover, HIV is only transmitted if it comes into contact with mucus membranes or broken skin but the law makes it felony if bodily fluids are thrown at “eyes, mouth, or skin.” Similarly, Hepatitis B and C are present in bodily fluids but mostly spread through blood such as sharing needles.
Advocates argue that laws such as this don’t just set standards behavior but are also used to educate and, therefore, the inaccurate information it includes can be harmful to the public. Senator Gloor (who has said he open to rewriting the specifics of the law to be more accurate) has an easy answer to these advocates: stop talking about the law. “This is a very small bill. No one was paying attention to it except law enforcement. If it does cause misinformation about how these diseases are spread, it will be the result of well-meaning advocacy groups bringing attention to the legislation.”