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Illinois Looks To Become The First State In 27 Years To Repeal HIV Exposure Laws

Updated June 15, 2021 at 11:32 AM ET

This month marks 40 years since the CDC reported the first confirmed cases of AIDS in the United States on June 5, 1981. Following panic around the new disease over the next decade, 30 U.S. states adopted laws that made it a misdemeanor or felony offense for a person aware of their HIV positive status to not disclose it before having condomless sex.

Illinois adopted one such law in 1989, but the state is now poised to fully repeal those criminal penalties. The measure passed in the state Senate last month after passing the House and now it's headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk for a signature.

Timothy Jackson, director of government relations at AIDS Foundation Chicago, was instrumental in pushing the decriminalization bill through the Illinois legislature. In an interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, he said that there is no evidence that HIV criminalization laws actually reduce HIV transmission.

"What we know is that [these laws] are overly discriminatory to people living with HIV. They don't do as they are intended," Jackson says. "Not one single study has shown where these type of laws of change behavior or [bring] down the incidence or prevalence rates of HIV."

Jackson, who lives with HIV himself and has spent much of his political career pushing against HIV criminalization and stigma in Mississippi and Alabama, says that these laws actually go against current science by incentivizing people not to know their HIV status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention substantiate this idea.

"After over 30 years of HIV research and significant biomedical advancements to treat and prevent HIV transmission, many state laws are now outdated and do not reflect our current understanding of HIV. In many cases, this same standard is not applied to other treatable diseases," a note on the CDC website reads. "Further, these laws have been shown to discourage HIV testing, increase stigma, and exacerbate disparities."

For decades after AIDS was first discovered, politicians and public figures fueled misinformation around HIV and AIDS. Now, many activists, public health leaders and HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations have pointed to an approach that veers away from criminalization and towards increased support, communication and community empowerment as key to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States.

Illinois state senator Robert Peters, who represents Chicago's predominantly Black Hyde Park neighborhood, sponsored the bill to repeal the state's criminal penalties for HIV transmission after a conversation with activists from the Illinois HIV Action Alliance. He says these laws systematically discriminate against Black and LGBTQ individuals.

"When you combine those sort of systemic prejudices with a system of incarceration that's built on top of that," he told The Chicago Reader and Injustice Watch, "you get laws like these that don't do anything for anybody."

Studieshave shown that criminalization laws have disproportionately punished people of color, for whom the disease has also had a greater impact. In addition to decriminalization, many in the HIV/AIDS field such as Black AIDS Institute CEO Raniyah Copeland have told NPR that bringing HIV rates to zero will involve expanding access to testing and treatment — especially for Black and brown communities who often lack trust in public health institutions that underserve them.

Since these laws were first written, medicine has also advanced considerably. Dozens of treatment options now exist for HIV. When taken regularly, antiretroviral treatments are often so effective that they can reduce a person's viral load to undetectable levels. People with undetectable levels of HIV cannot then transmit the virus to others, even through condomless sex. Preventative medicine also exists in the form of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PreP, which is up to 99% effective in preventing HIV transmission from sex if taken daily.

Although Illinois would only become the second state in the country to fully repeal criminal penalties for HIV exposure after Texas in 1994, many states such as Virginia, Missouri and Nevada have "modernized" their HIV criminalization laws to reduce felonies to misdemeanors and remove offenses that are understood to be scientifically inaccurate. Those include penalties for allegedly transmitting HIV through saliva, or restricting people who have HIV from donating organs to other people who also live with the disease, which has been legal under the federal HOPE Act since 2013.

For Jackson, however, Illinois choosing to fully repeal its HIV criminalization law is a powerful statement.

"[It] allows people living with HIV to breathe," he says, "to not have that stigma on their shoulders and really allows us to be able to turn the page in ending the HIV epidemic."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.