Public Comments for: SB1138 - Sexually transmitted infections; infected sexual battery, penalty.
Last Name: Warbelow Organization: Human Rights Campaign Locality: Richmond

Re: SUPPORT for SB 1138, Testimony from the Human Rights Campaign in support of the bill to modernize existing HIV-specific state laws Dear Chair Herring and Members of the Committee, On behalf of its more than three million members and supporters nationwide, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) thanks you for the opportunity to submit testimony on SB 1138, an important measure that would modernize Virginia’s existing HIV-specific laws and help advance public health efforts to end the HIV epidemic. HRC is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) equality. By inspiring and engaging all Americans, HRC strives to end discrimination against LGBTQ people, including those impacted by HIV, and realize a world that achieves fundamental fairness and equality for all. Virginia’s existing HIV-specific criminal statutes unjustly target and punish people living with HIV (PLWH). These provisions are based on long-outdated and inaccurate beliefs about HIV risks and transmission, and do not reflect present-day realities—realities like the fact that PLWH who achieve an undetectable viral load through modern treatment cannot transmit the virus to their sexual partners. What’s more, Virginia’s current HIV-specific laws do not account for other effective HIV prevention measures like condom and pre-exposure prophylaxis use; make no distinction between high-risk, low-risk, and risk-free consensual conduct; and criminalizes PLWH without regard to actual transmission. HIV-specific criminal laws like those currently in force in Virginia are a serious threat to public health. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV-specific criminal laws "have been shown to discourage HIV testing, increase stigma, and exacerbate disparities.”They undermine efforts to reduce new HIV infections by increasing the already prevalent stigma against PLWH—a stigma that drives many to not get tested or refrain from seeking appropriate treatment, thereby increasing the risks and rates of transmission. Additionally, these laws spread and legitimize patently inaccurate beliefs about HIV risks and transmission, further amplifying the stigma and marginalization of PLWH. Since these laws target people who know their HIV status, they disincentivize getting tested by privileging ignorance of one’s HIV status and punishing responsible behavior. SB 1138 would help support state public health efforts to end the HIV epidemic by repealing HIV-specific criminal laws that unjustly target and punish PLWH. This would represent a major step forward in decreasing the harmful stigma surrounding HIV, encouraging an accurate understanding of HIV risks and transmission, and supporting efforts to increase HIV testing and treatment as prevention. I strongly urge you to vote in favor of SB 1138. Sarah Warbelow Legal Director, Human Rights Campaign

Last Name: Pulliam Organization: ECHO VA Coalition Locality: Woodbridge

Dear Chairman Herring and Members of the House Courts of Justice Committee, Our names are Cedric Pulliam and Deirdre Johnson and we are writing to you today on behalf of the ECHO VA Coalition to address HIV criminalization in Virginia. We are asking you to support Senate Bill 1138. We are in full support of Senate Bill 1138 because this bill ensures the Virginia Code reflects the current scientific understanding of HIV, and promotes public health by alleviating the stigma and mistrust of health institutions that limit the usage of testing and treatment services. I have lived and advocated for people living with HIV for 20 years. The biggest barrier has been getting people to feel comfortable to trust the systems currently in place to get tested and seek treatment for HIV. The fear and stigma of being punished for knowing your HIV status has created a juxtaposition between engaging in the basic human right of being loved and getting tested or seeking the care we need. To some it may be a simple choice, but for many of us living with HIV it is not that easy. No one should face criminal charges for living with a disease, especially not HIV. The Centers for Disease Control has made it very clear that HIV Criminalization works against public health. The time is now for Virginia to have our laws reflect our state slogan...Virginia is for Lovers, and by passing SB1138, that includes people living with HIV or at a perceived risk for HIV. - Co-Founder, Deirdre Johnson As a clinical health psychologist, public health, and medical professional who has worked in HIV since 2008 I have seen the advancement of HIV science grow exponentially in 13 years. The mere fact that these laws was a mandate in order for states to receive funding under the Ryan White Care Act as a protection because of the lack of scientific research and evidence on HIV transmission, treatment, and services showcases that in 2021 the time has come for the Commonwealth of Virginia to right our wrong that was enacted in 1997 (24 years ago) to Virginians living with HIV and pass SB1138. Federal government agencies have called upon state legislatures to modernize or repeal these HIV criminalization laws because data showcases the negative impact they have caused on HIV prevention, treatment, and care services and in order to end the HIV epidemic state’s must eliminate laws such as infected sexual battery law. The unwavering message is clear that scientific advancement has brought us to understand that a person taking HIV treatment regularly can attain an undetectable viral load, which means they cannot transmit HIV to any partner. Advancements like this should be considered by state legislators such as each Senator of this committee. Additionally, we also know that over 25,000 Virginians are living with HIV and they should have an equitable lifestyle both personally and sexually just as any other person should. We also know that laws like this showcase systemic racial inequities towards Black and Latino persons. As a public health professional, I know that the infected sexual battery law creates a higher rate of mistrust of health professionals, medical mistrust, stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV, and does not align with the HIV medicine and science of 2021. - Co-Founder, Cedric Pulliam

Last Name: Barbarin Organization: PWN-USA Locality: NEW ORLEANS

I am writing on behalf of the Positive Women’s Network-USA (PWN) in support of SB1138. PWN is the only nationwide membership organization comprised of women and people of transgender experience living with HIV. Our work is grounded in social justice and human rights, and we explicitly apply a racial justice and gender justice lens to address the multifarious barriers women living with HIV face in all aspects of our lives. PWN members are actively engaged in HIV modernization efforts in states around the nation, including Virginia. Any campaign that seeks to change HIV-specific laws must meaningfully include people living with HIV, and this is especially true for efforts to address HIV criminalization laws. It is the lives, rights, and safety of people living with HIV that will be most impacted by any modernization effort. The domestic HIV epidemic remains a significant public health issue, one that has disproportionality impacted Black, Indigenous and other communities of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ people, people who use drugs, and sex workers. In Virginia, despite only making up 19.5 percent of the population, Black people make up 58 percent of persons living with HIV. It is abundantly clear who bears the brunt of the HIV epidemic in Virginia—an epidemic that cannot be ended via criminalization. Laws that criminalize people living with HIV disproportionately impact women, especially Black and other women of color, women who are sex workers and women of trans experience. They are also disproportionately enforced against Black people living with HIV. A recent study in Georgia showed that Black men and women are significantly more likely to be arrested for HIV-related offenses than their white counterparts, and Black men are nearly twice as likely to be convicted than white men. Virginia’s HIV criminalization statute, works against public health and the public interest. HIV criminalization laws disincentive HIV testing by subjecting those who know their status to the ever-present threat of arrest and criminal prosecution. They create mistrust of, and alienation from, public health institutions and put people living with HIV at heightened risk of violence from intimate partners. The law reflects on outdated and mistaken understanding of HIV. It fails to reflect the current landscape of HIV prevention and treatment by including conduct that does not pose a risk of HIV transmission such as spitting. The law fuels continued stigma, misinformation, and discrimination against people living with HIV. It is well past time to modernize the Virginia code to better reflect our current understanding of transmission of HIV and quality of life for people living with HIV. SB1138 modernizes the commonwealth’s HIV criminalization law that targets a specific population, that perpetuates the stigma and barriers to healthcare that the population experiences, and that constitutes both a human rights violation and a prevention of effective public health. By voting to support SB1138 the Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee's Criminal Subcommittee signals its support for people living with HIV to live life free from shame, stigma and fear of how they may be unfairly punished based on their status. It is with this background that we urge you to vote “yes” on SB1138.

Last Name: Porter Locality: Richmond

Members of the Committee for Courts of Justice, The de-criminalization of HIV, represented in SB1138, is a critical preventive strategy to ending the HIV epidemic. Because criminal liability generally only applies to those who know their positive status, and can therefore be held morally responsible, it is incapable of being an effective prevention tool against transmission in this context. (Conversely, although there is relatively little empirical evidence to suggest that people are dissuaded from testing as a result of criminalization, there is the possibility that people may assume that PLHA will necessarily disclose their status or insist on safer sex (in order to avoid liability), when this may not be the case, thus creating a false sense of security.) Secondly, overly broad criminalization reproduces and reinforces negative stereotypes about PLHA through (frequently inaccurate and sensationalist) press coverage of trials and convictions. This contributes to the stigma associated with HIV, which in turn creates obstacles to prevention and treatment and undermines the right of PLHA to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and wellbeing. Sexual health physicians, nurses, and advisers may feel conflicted—to the detriment of their patients, their own professional identity, and public health more generally—if they feel obliged to raise the question of criminalization with those have been diagnosed positive, and there is the risk that the relationship of trust critical to patient care is compromised. In the era of biomedical interventions that can suppress an individual’s viral load, that is the number of copies of HIV virus in single mL/blood, to such small quantities it can no longer be detected in standard diagnostics; achieving viral suppression through antiretroviral treatment adherence means HIV can no longer be sexually transmitted, making early diagnosis and access to treatment a powerful weapon in the fight against further infection. A willingness to get tested, to initiate treatment and adhere to prophylaxis, or cope with unique challenges facing communities at-risk of HIV, depend on public health efforts to reduce stigma. Stigma has the power to undermine any progress made in ending the HIV epidemic and reducing stigma to improve HIV prevention, treatment and care is an integral part of public health practice; be it advocating HIV testing or adherence to treatment as prevention, measures to control the burden of HIV depend on governing bodies to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable and stimulate the development of stigma reduction interventions. SB1138 boldly answers this call to action by identifying section of the code that reference the criminalization of HIV and STI exposure, infection, and transmissibility, and the ethical and empirical implications of counterproductivity in public health and health policy. Accepting SB1183 into law strengthens capabilities for addressing critical health issues by removing unjustifiable limits on public health practice and any references that empower stigma and reduce the capacity for public health to work with diverse communities to improve population health outcomes for all of the Commonwealth.

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