Should It Be a Crime to Expose One to HIV?

HIV/AIDS-awareness buttons and bracelets (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HIV/AIDS-awareness buttons and bracelets (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It's every parent's worst nightmare. You raise your child to be cautious about strangers, only to discover that an adult you entrusted with his or her care is the one you should have feared most. A mother in Cahokia, Ill., is currently grappling with this harsh reality after discovering that a teacher's aide may have sexually abused her teenage son and other boys.


As horrifying as any story of sexual abuse of a minor is, this one could have an even more tragic ending. It has been revealed that Mario Hunt, the teacher's aide in question, is HIV-positive. Authorities have not revealed if any of his alleged victims have tested positive for the virus, too, but Hunt has been charged with knowingly exposing someone to HIV.

Most reasonable people can agree that knowingly exposing someone to a life-threatening, at worse, or life-altering, at best, disease is deplorable and that the real victims in a situation like this are those who are exposed, not those doing the exposing. For this reason it is not entirely clear why Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a principled member of Congress whom I admire, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), one of the few prominent women of color in the Republican Party, have made protecting those who expose partners to HIV a legislative priority. The Repeal HIV Discrimination Act of 2013 reads in part as follows: 

(1) At present, 32 States and 2 United States territories have criminal statutes based on perceived exposure to HIV, rather than actual transmission of HIV to another. Thirteen States have HIV-specific laws that make spitting or biting a felony, even though it is not possible to transmit HIV via saliva.

(3) Prosecutions for perceived exposure, non-disclosure, or unintentional transmission of HIV have occurred in at least 39 States under general or HIV-specific laws.

 (7) Criminal laws and prosecutions do not take into account the benefits of effective antiretroviral medications, which reduce the HIV virus to undetectable levels and further reduce the already low risk of transmitting the HIV to near-zero.

 (8) Although HIV/AIDS currently is viewed as a treatable, chronic, medical condition, people living with HIV have been charged under aggravated assault, attempted murder, and even bioterrorism statutes because prosecutors, courts, and legislators continue to view and characterize the blood, semen, and saliva of people living with HIV as a "deadly weapon".

Based on this wording, it remains unclear, if this law were to take effect, whether someone like Hunt would face prosecution only for inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor and not prosecution for possibly exposing the minor to a potentially life-threatening disease. The bill goes on to explain that current laws that would result in Hunt's conviction, even if he doesn't actually transmit the disease, don't take into account medical advances and drugs that allow those with the disease to live long, relatively productive lives, compared with the virus's early days. It also argues that such laws do little in the way of deterrence. But this reasoning is flawed on many levels.

First of all, what right does Congress have to tell anyone to essentially "relax" about potentially contracting a life-threatening disease? Sure, people with HIV may continue living for a long time. So do people with diabetes. But if given the choice of not having such a disease versus having it, I think most people would choose being healthy.

Furthermore, think of this same logic being applied to other dangerous behaviors, such as shooting a gun or driving while drunk. I know that Rep. Lee doesn't believe that someone who carries an AK-47 into a school and shoots into a group of people but misses should avoid prosecution just because he is a lousy shot. He should be punished for endangering people, and our laws exist for that reason. We know that drunk-driving laws don't deter all people from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. But they ensure that more think twice before doing so, and thus some people are deterred.

PBS highlighted just how problematic this issue is, particularly in poor communities of color, where doctors find themselves treating a patient who has HIV and also has a partner or spouse who is unaware that he or she does. Getting rid of disclosure laws encourages silence about HIV/AIDS at a time when we should be talking about it. Then there is the case of William "Reds" Brawner, the former Howard University student who admitted to engaging in unprotected sex with numerous women on the campus, despite knowing his HIV-positive status.


I admire Lee and Ros-Lehtinen for standing up against legitimate discrimination against those with HIV — discrimination in housing or employment, for instance. But helping to protect those who don't wish to protect the health of others is not protecting them from discrimination. It is serving as a legislative co-conspirator in the silence surrounding this epidemic that is affecting communities of color more than any other.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter