Bill Proposes to Lessen Penalties for Exposing Partners to AIDS

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SACRAMENTO -- A bill that seeks to modernize criminal statutes against those who knowingly expose partners to the AIDS virus are gearing up for the proposal's first legislative hearing before the Senate Public Safety Committee.

One of the key authors, Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco, says many laws making it a felony to knowingly expose people to the virus were enacted decades ago when the fear of AIDS was pervasive because there was no cure for the disease that once meant certain death.

Wiener says modern medicines can reduce the presence of the virus in the body so that it is virtually non-contagious.

"It's almost impossible for you to infect someone even if you're trying," said Wiener.

AIDS advocates, gay and lesbian groups, public health professionals and the ACLU say the laws are discriminatory because purposely spreading other seriously infectious diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis is a misdemeanor.

In addition, proponents say the felony threat is used to force abused partners to remain in abusive relationships or by vindictive partners in domestic disputes.

The bottom line is that the stigma still attached to AIDS means the felony penalties used against AIDS patients acts to keep those infected in the shadows.

"It's discouraging people from getting tested, it's discouraging people from talking about their HIV status and these felonies actually increase HIV infection rates," said Wiener.

There is expected to be some opposition from prosecutor groups who want to retain the flexibility to use the higher sanctions.

But Wiener and others say the laws now discriminate against poor minority women who actually have much lower rates of AIDS infections.