The Iowa legislature has become the first in the country to pass legislation that would repeal state law criminalizing people with HIV.
SF 2297 was passed unanimously by the house in the early morning hours Thursday. The bill, which was also passed by the senate unanimously, will now be delivered to Gov. Terry Branstad, who has 30 days to sign or veto it.
There have been calls for reforms to Iowa’s law criminalizing the transmission of HIV since 2009, when a man was convicted and imprisoned for failing to disclose to a one-time intimate partner that he was HIV-positive. The man was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 25 years, despite the fact that the partner did not contract HIV.
This year, organizations including the Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network (CHAIN) and One Iowa, the state’s largest LGBT rights organization, have lobbied for reforms.
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“HIV-specific” laws that apply only to people with HIV are on the books in 34 states. Individuals who have been convicted under these laws have sometimes received decades-long prison sentences—even those receiving effective treatment for HIV and those who engage in sexual activities that pose no or little risk of HIV-transmission, such as sex with a condom.
SF 2297 changes state law from being HIV-specific to include a number of infectious diseases. Additionally, it creates a tiered sentencing system that takes into consideration intent, actual risk of transmission, and whether transmission occurred.
According to the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, most HIV-specific prosecutions around the country are for failure to disclose HIV status and are not for transmission. Competing stories about verbal consent that are impossible to prove then become the crux of the prosecution’s case.
Nick Rhoades, an Iowan active in the reform effort who was convicted and sentenced under the law, said in a statement through the Sero Project that the passage of SF 2297 shows the importance of people with HIV getting engaged in policy discussions. “For me and others in Iowa who have been persecuted unjustly, this is a huge milestone, but it is only one step. We won’t be finished until HIV is no longer used inappropriately in criminal prosecutions anywhere,” said Rhoades.
Rhoades sued the state challenging his conviction under the law. His case was recently heard by the Iowa Supreme Court.
SF 2297 will include a clause that retroactively removes Rhoades and other Iowans convicted under the previous statute from a list of people who were required to register as sex offenders.