Decrying Criminalization

Concordia Lecture Series Prompts Discussion on HIV Non-disclosure

  • Laurel Sprague, a researcher from the HIV Justice Network, addressed an audience on Sept. 15 in the Hall Building. Photo Ocean DeRouchie

The sentiment surrounding HIV/AIDS is often one of discomfort. But the reluctance to speak openly about such a significant and impactful disease is hurting the people closest to it.

Under current Canadian legislation, HIV non-disclosure is criminalized. It exercises some of the most punitive aspects of our criminal justice system, explained Alexander McClelland, a writer and researcher currently working on a PhD at Concordia.

McClelland was one of four panelists speaking under Concordia’s Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS on Thursday, Sept. 15 in the Hall building. The collective puts on multiple panel-based events in order to address the attitudes, laws, and intersections of political and socioeconomic stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Talking About HIV, Legally

There are three distinct charges that guide prosecutors in HIV cases—transmission (giving the disease to someone without having disclosed your status), exposure (e.g. spitting or biting) and non-disclosure (not informing a sexual partner about your HIV/AIDS status).

Aggravated sexual assault and attempted murder are some of the charges that defendants often face, explained Edwin Bernard, Global Coordinator for the HIV Justice Network, during the discussion.

While there are clearly defined situations in which you are legally obligated to tell a sex partner about your HIV status, there are no HIV-specific laws. This results in the application of general law in cases that are anything but general.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada established that “people living with HIV must disclose their status before having sex that poses a ‘realistic possibility of HIV transmission.’”

Aidslaw.ca presents a clear map of situations in which you’d have to tell a sex partner about your status because, in fact, it is not in all scenarios that you’d be legally required to have the discussion.

A lot of it depends on your viral load—the amount of measurable virus in your bloodstream, usually taken in milliliters. A “low” to undetectable viral load is the goal, and is achieved with anti-viral medication.

Treatment serves to render HIV-positive individuals non-infectious, and therefore lowering the risk of transmission. A “high” viral load indicates increased amounts of HIV in the blood.

If protection is used and with a low viral load, one might not have to disclose their status at all.

That said, there is a legal obligation to disclose one’s HIV-positive status before any penetrative sex sans-condom, regardless of viral load. You’d also have to bring it up before having any sex with protection if you have a viral load higher than “low.”

But not all sex is spelled out so clearly.

Oral sex, for instance, is a grey area. Aidslaw.ca says, “oral sex is usually considered very low risk for HIV transmission.” They write that “despite some developments at lower level courts,” they cannot say for sure what does not require disclosure.

There are “no risk” activities. Smooching and touching one another are intimate activities that, as health professionals say, pose such a small risk of transmission that there “should be no legal duty to disclose an HIV-positive status.”

Moving Up, and Out of Hand

Court proceedings are based on how the jury and judge want to apply general laws to specific instances. There are a lot of factors that can influence the outcome.

The case-to-case outlook leads to the criminal justice system dealing with non-disclosure in such a disproportionate way, said McClelland.

The situation begs the question: “Why is society responding in such a punitive way?” asked McClelland.

This isn’t to say that not disclosing one’s HIV status “doesn’t require some potential form of intervention,” he explained, adding that intervention could incorporate counseling, mental-health support, encouragement around building self-esteem and learning how to deal and live with the virus in the world. “But in engaging with the very blunt instrument that is the criminal law is the wrong approach.”

He continued to explain that the reality of the criminalization of HIV ultimately doesn’t do anything to prevent HIV transmission.

“It’s just ruining people’s lives,” said McClelland, who has been interviewing Canadians who have been affected by criminal charges due to HIV-related situations. “It’s a very complex social situation that requires a nuanced approach to support people.”

“It’s just ruining people’s lives. It’s a very complex social situation that requires a nuanced approach to support people.” —Alexander McClelland, Concordia PhD student

Counting the Cases

The Community AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, a Canadian resource for information on HIV/AIDS, states that about 75,500 Canadians were living with the virus by the end of the 2014, according to the yearly national HIV estimates.

That number has gone up since. On Monday, Sept. 19, Saskatoon doctors called for a public health state of emergency due to overwhelmingly increasing cases of new infections and transmission, according to CBC.

In Quebec, there have been cases surrounding transmission and exposure. In 2013, Jacqueline Jacko, an HIV-positive woman, was sentenced to ten months in prison for spitting on a police officer—despite findings that confirm that the disease cannot be transmitted through saliva.

In this situation, Jacko had called for police assistance in removing an unwelcome person from her home. Aggression transpired between her and the officers, resulting in her arrest and eventually her spitting on them, according to Le Devoir.

“[This case] is so clearly based on AIDS-phobia, AIDS stigma and fear,” added McClelland, “and an example of how the police treat these situations and use HIV as a way to criminalize people.”

Police intervention is crucial in the fight against HIV criminalization. McClelland urged people to consider the consequences of involving the justice system in these kinds of situations.

“It’s important to understand that the current scientific reality for HIV is that it’s a chronic, manageable condition. When people take [antivirals] they are rendered non-infectious,” he said. “They should then understand that the fear is grounded in a kind of stigma and historical understanding of HIV that is no longer correct today.”

The first instinct, or notion of calling the police in an instance where one feels they may have been exposed to the virus in some way is “mostly grounded in fear and panic,” he said.

“[Police] respond in a really disproportionate, violent way towards people—so I would consider questioning, or at least thinking twice before calling the police,” McClelland explained.

On the other hand, he suggested approaching the situation in more conventional, educational and progressive methods.

“I think it could be talked through in different ways—by going to a counselor, talking to a close friend, engaging with a community organization, learning about HIV and what it means to have HIV, and understanding that the risk of HIV transmission are very low because of people being on [antivirals].”

As for the current state of Canadian legislation, there are a lot of complexities that hinder heavy-hitting changes to the laws.

Due to the Supreme Court’s rulings in 2012, they are unlikely to review the decision for another decade. For now, the main course of action is “on the ground,” said McClelland. From mitigating people from requesting police involvement in order to “slow down the cases,” to raising awareness through events such as Concordia’s Community Lecture Series, and engaging with the people to resolve issues in community-based ways and collective of care.

Then, McClelland said, “trying to do high-level political advocacy to get leaders to think about how they can change the current situation” would be the next step.

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