ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday that would dramatically overhaul a state law that makes it a crime for people who know they have HIV to have sex without first disclosing the infection.
Advocates say the measure would be a milestone in the South, where the bulk of new HIV diagnoses occur and stigma around the disease remains high.
"For a southern state, this is a big deal," said Nina Martinez, with the Georgia HIV Justice Coalition.
The state House of Representatives' rules committee on Thursday put it on the calendar for consideration by the full House.
Georgia is among roughly 20 states that criminalize the failure to disclose HIV status before sex. Authorities in Georgia made nearly 600 arrests from 1988 to September 2017 on suspicion of HIV-related crimes, according to a 2018 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.
The new bill would decriminalize that failure unless the person intends to infect someone and engages in a sex act that "has a significant risk of transmission" based on the latest science. The burden would be on prosecutors to establish intent, and defendants could beat the charge by showing they used a condom or took medication that makes transmission of HIV effectively impossible, Martinez said.
California has a similar law for HIV and other communicable diseases.
In an earlier version of the bill, the penalty for violating the law was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, but lawmakers scrapped that change.
Supporters of decriminalizing HIV exposure say it reflects the reality that HIV is not easy to contract and can be managed these days with drugs. Rather than deter behavior that could transmit the virus, existing laws could exacerbate the epidemic, health experts and advocates for HIV patients say.
"It is time for us to remove part of the stigma that keeps people that are HIV positive from getting treatment or even to go to be identified, which then puts the rest of our population at risk for further infections," Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a sponsor of the Georgia bill, said at a hearing last month.
The laws' defenders point to statistics showing tens of thousands of new HIV diagnoses each year and say that although the disease may not be a death sentence, it still requires a lifetime of expensive medical treatment.
Some states have made more modest changes. North Carolina and Michigan recently updated their HIV policies to exempt HIV patients from prosecution if they're on medication that has suppressed their virus. A Louisiana law that took effect in August 2018 allows defendants to challenge a charge of exposing someone to HIV by presenting evidence that a doctor advised them they weren't infectious.
People with HIV who are on antiretroviral drugs that keep their viral load below a specific threshold have "effectively no risk" of transmitting HIV, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But as of 2016, only a little more than half of the estimated 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S. were virally suppressed, the CDC says.
Many advocates say policies such as those in North Carolina and Michigan create an underclass of people who lack access to drugs and are therefore still vulnerable to prosecution.
The Georgia legislation is advancing as the Trump administration aims to eradicate HIV by 2030 — an effort that has focused attention on the South. Southern states accounted for more than half of the nearly 40,000 new HIV diagnoses in 2017, though fewer people are aware of their disease in the South than in any other region, according to the CDC.