Adding to the Stigma

Health advocates: Criminalizing HIV is wrong approach

May 25, 2011 at 2:06 pm


ven with all the medical advances, people infected with HIV have plenty to worry about. They include concerns like fearing the reaction when telling a potential new sexual partner about the infection, being able to afford expensive medications or not being able to qualify for health insurance.

Then there’s the case of Andre Davis, a former semi-professional wrestler and Hyde Park resident, who is facing a total of 24 counts of felonious assault for not disclosing his HIV-positive status to sexual partners.

Prosecutors indicted Davis using an Ohio law that makes concealing a positive status from partners a criminal offense, but many health advocates say such laws have negative repercussions for people living with HIV in a responsible way and ultimately cause more harm than good.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Hamilton County prosecutors indicted Davis — who used to wrestle under the name “Gangsta of Love” — on 15 counts of felonious assault: seven counts with four separate victims for the first indictment, and eight counts from eight different victims on the second indictment.

Shortly after the Hamilton County charges were filed, Warren County prosecutors indicted Davis of nine counts of felonious assault.

Davis is due back in a Hamilton County court to appear before Judge Jerome Metz on June 1 to enter a plea.

If convicted of all charges in Hamilton County alone, Davis faces 120 years in prison, says Chief Assistant Prosecutor Julie Wilson. Even if he is convicted on just a single count, Davis could spend between two to eight years in prison.

The Prosecutor’s Office considers the charges a serious matter, especially due to the number of violations, Wilson says. The case, which received a great deal of media attention due to its sensationalistic nature, prompted more victims to come forward. The accusations ultimately raised awareness, she adds.

“It definitely got people interested and we had a lot of calls about it, then we had the second indictment,” Wilson says.

“So, with all of our cases and not just this scenario, we certainly hope that people can become aware of different situations or learn something from it. That’s important, obviously.”

But as a HIV/AIDS law advocate, local attorney Scott Knox says laws like the one in Ohio serve only to criminalize those with HIV and do little to advance justice.

Knox points to cases like Davis’, which he says could’ve been prosecuted under existing laws for felonious assault without the additional provision of the non-disclosure for HIV.

The net result of Ohio’s law is that it unfairly makes felons of people involved in more ethically ambiguous situations.

Such situations include people who engage in safe sexual activities, those practices deemed to have no chance of passing the disease to another, and as a result choose not to disclose their status; people who might be abused by their partners and forced into sexual relations; people involved in a nasty breakup that might result in one partner falsely accusing the other of non-disclosure as retaliation; or people who have an extremely low viral count and always practice safe sex.

Knox views lapses in HIV prevention and education to be the primary culprit in such situations.

For example, a recent study found a large segment of HIV-negative gay men were relying on the law’s existence and having unsafe sex because it was the infected person’s legal duty to disclose his or her status.

Incidents like the Davis case should act as a wakeup call to those who are practicing unsafe sex, Knox says.

“The problem is the statute is overly broad, in this day and age,” he says.

“It takes all of the responsibility off of a person to say, ‘I should assume everybody is HIV-positive, even if they tell me they’re not.’ The person engaging in sex with the other has some responsibility to be aware that the person they’re sleeping with may have HIV, and you should be using protection no matter what they’re saying,” Knox adds.

Kevin Sullivan, executive director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition, says people have never been as responsible as they need to be about contracting HIV.

Because of improved drug therapy, many young people have the perception that just taking a pill will make everything OK and don’t grasp the seriousness of managing a chronic disease.

Unlike other self-induced chronic diseases such as type-2 diabetes or malignant melanoma, the public often tends to pass judgment on those with HIV because they attribute the disease to negative behaviors such as promiscuity and drug abuse, Sullivan adds.

Many people tend to focus more on the spread of HIV than other diseases and would cringe at prosecuting a parent for sending their child to school with a cold, and refuse to make it a felony for people to go to work or travel on commercial jet while sick with the flu.

Influenza, by the way, is a far more frequent killer: It’s responsible for an estimated 36,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Cases like the Davis incident — where an individual acts so irresponsibly, involving multiple partners — aren’t the norm but grab a large amount of media attention.

“It’s unfortunate there’s not more media coverage of the struggles and triumphs of typical people living with HIV, and that’s hard to do because of the stigma around the disease,” Sullivan says.

“You don’t get a whole lot of folks wanting to step forward and get a light shined on them as being HIV-positive.

“It’s one of the consequences (of) these types of news stories, (they) add to the stigma that you have to face daily,” he adds. “When these kinds of stories and these laws are enforced, it’s typically for behavior that’s so outrageous that people get worked into a frenzy.”

Ironically in an era where AIDS education seems more crucial than ever, the Ohio Department of Health abolished funding in February for Stop AIDS, perhaps Cincinnati’s most prominent HIV/AIDS outreach agency.

The organization currently is trying to obtain private funding and pair with other groups so it can continue it services, which include education and testing.

Caracole Inc., another provider of housing and other services for individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS, is trying to fill some of the void.

Linda Seiter, Caracole’s executive director, says the nonprofit agency has stepped in and assumed control of Stop AIDS’ case management load and is helping its clients. A gap exists in the public education component, she says; although the funding still exists, it has yet to be awarded to another agency.

Meanwhile, testing services are still available through the University of Cincinnati, Planned Parenthood and the Cincinnati Health Department.

If nothing else, Seiter hopes people will become more responsible and protect themselves.

“This is not just a problem in a certain neighborhood; we have clients in an eight-county region from all walks of life, all income levels, all races, all situations,” she says.” I hope that it brings awareness. That’s potentially a good thing.

“At least people are talking about it,” Seiter adds. “I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances, because that’s really sad. It’s sad for the women he (Davis) had sex with, it’s sad for him. It’s really just a tragic situation.”