Tuesday, February 14, 2012

5 Ways that HIV Criminalization Hurts Women and Children

Back in 1998, when I first learned of a woman in Oregon who was going to court because she was HIV+ and wanted to breastfeed her newborn son, I had never heard of HIV criminalization.  As I moved forward with shooting the documentary, This Child of Mine, I began to see how laws and practices in the US and around the world often impact women, particularly those women without the means to fight back.

Many of the laws are well-intentioned efforts to stop the spread of HIV. We’ve all heard the horror stories of at-large psychopaths, intentionally infecting unsuspecting one-night-stands with HIV. But the vast majority of HIV “criminals” do not fall into this category. In fact, research shows that women are inordinately impacted by the criminalization of HIV.

So, without further ado:

5 Ways that HIV Criminalization Hurts Women and Children

  1. You’re in trouble if you don’t consent to HIV testing.
In the US several states now have laws mandating HIV testing for pregnant women and newborns that can throw rights to confidentiality and informed decision-making right out the window.  Read here about one case where a pregnant woman in New Jersey was tested and her HIV+ status disclosed, both without her consent. Later, HIV medications were mandated for her newborn, and she temporarily lost custody of him.

  1. You’re in trouble if you ask too many questions about HIV treatment.
Even though there is no law in the U.S. that mandates HIV treatment for children, if you resist treatment - or even ask questions -  a doctor, nurse or even a nosy neighbor can turn you in. This Child of Mine tells the story about a mother from Maine who was reported for negligence by a doctor just for questioning him about the safety of an experimental drug trial for her son. 

  1. You’re in trouble if you get pregnant in the first place.
In Uganda, for example, the government is considering a bill that would make it a crime for people to transmit HIV, including mothers who infect their children. In other parts of Africa doctors have been sterilizing  HIV+ women without their consent. And even though no such measures have been taken in this country, the court of public opinion often still stigmatizes the pregnant HIV+ woman as irresponsible or even criminal.

  1. You’re in trouble if you tell. You’re in trouble if you don’t.
As reported earlier, not disclosing one’s HIV status can lead to criminal prosecution, loss of custody, incarceration. But according to the AIDS Legal Network, there are a growing number of reports of HIV+ women who are abused or murdered by their partners for “bringing HIV into the family”. In other parts of the world, it is considered perfectly reasonable to ostracize, abandon or even kill your wife if she is HIV+.  

  1. You’re in trouble, so you run.
Disclosure laws, mandated testing, and the pressure to treat HIV+ children are intended to protect people, save lives. But as I discussed in Families Underground, they often have the opposite effect. When people are too scared to speak up, they often keep their mouths shut; when they are forced into corners, they often run. And opting altogether isn't going to solve problems; it can only create new ones. 


REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act

Sponsored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), The Repeal HIV Discrimination Act is intended to eliminate discrimination in the law for those who have tested positive for HIV.

Positive Women’s Network

The mission of the Positive Women’s Network is to prepare and involve HIV-positive women, including transgender women, in all levels of policy and decision-making to improve the quality of women’s lives.

HIV Law Project

Through innovative legal services and advocacy programs, The HIV Law Project fights for the rights of the most underserved people living with HIV/AIDS.
Center for HIV Law and Policy
The Positive Justice Project is the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s response to stigma driven laws criminalizing people with HIV and AIDS.

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