RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly advanced a bill this week that lawmakers say will modernize Virginia’s current HIV laws. The amended measure has passed both chambers, but lawmakers must now accept or work out differences in the bill.
Senate Bill 1138, introduced by Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also removes a law that prohibits the donation of blood and organs by people with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A 21-17 vote along party lines pushed the bill out of the Senate earlier this month. The House of Delegates passed the bill Friday in a 56-44 vote.
The bill repeals a law that makes it a felony for HIV-positive people to sell or donate blood, body fluids, organs and tissues. Donors must be in compliance with the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act. This state legislation does not apply to national organizations such as the American Red Cross. The organization implements FDA guidelines that require men who have sex with men to defer from sexual intercourse for three months before donating blood.
The measure also removes HIV, AIDS, syphilis and hepatitis B from the list of infectious biological substances under the current infected sexual battery law, opting to use the language “sexually transmitted infection.” The crime is punishable by a Class 6 felony, which carries a punishment of no more than five years in prison or a $2,500 fine. In 2019 and 2020, three offenders were convicted of such crimes, according to data provided in the impact statement by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. The Senate voted to lower the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Opponents of the bill spoke against reducing the penalty for such crimes. The House vote Friday included an amendment to keep the Class 6 felony punishment.
The bill adds language that HIV will not be included in the current statute as an infectious biological substance. It is a Class 5 felony to cause malicious injury by means of an infectious biological substance. The offense is punishable by five to 30 years in prison.
McClellan said current HIV laws put in place during the 1980s AIDS epidemic have proven ineffective from a public health perspective. She said they are counterproductive and were implemented years ago to receive federal funding.
“There are other laws that could be used to criminalize intentionally infecting someone with anything,” McClellan said. “There’s no need to specifically target and single out for HIV-positive status.”
LGBTQ and HIV advocacy groups hope the bill will end the stigma attached to HIV-positive people and also LGBTQ members who are not HIV positive.
The bill has the support of organizations such as the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Equality Virginia, the Zero Project, Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia, or ECHO VA, and the Positive Women’s Network - USA.
Deirdre Johnson, co-founder of the ECHO VA Coalition, said the bill is a step in the right direction for ending the stigma against those with HIV.
“One of the biggest things with the stigma has been the fear of knowing that you could be criminalized for having HIV, period, and then you know, of course, that deters people from getting tested,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that HIV stigma and criminalization have a profound effect on people of color and other marginalized communities who already experience health care inequity and mistrust.
“Virginia is for lovers and I really want us to encompass that slogan, including people living with HIV and a perceived risk for HIV,” Johnson said
Cedric Pulliam, co-founder of ECHO VA, said lawmakers in the 1980s and 1990s saw HIV as something the public needed to be protected from when it was and continues to be a public health concern. There is now a call for state legislators around the country to change HIV criminalization laws.
Pulliam said that national agencies are reaching out to state legislators to help undo prior initiatives that limit HIV prevention, treatment and services.
“We need your help from the state to really, basically right this wrong that we created decades ago,” Pulliam said of the agency outreach.
Pulliam called the move to decriminalize health status a “liberation” for those living with HIV because they would no longer have a target on their back. He also said that laws specifically target people with HIV. In Virginia, syphilis and hepatitis also are criminalized but other chronic illnesses and diseases are not, he said.
Virginia is currently one of 37 states as of 2020 that have HIV discriminatory laws, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If the federal government has really been calling for states to make this change, it’s time for Virginia to be one of the next and not be, you know, the last,” Pulliam said.