HIV Felony law is based on fear and sexual taboos

Well, I learn something new every day here in Mississippi.  On Friday, May 16, 2008, the Clarion-Ledger broke a story of a wife who did not disclose her HIV status to her husband is now facing felony charges for knowingly exposing her husband and four year old son to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.   The statute regulating HIV exposure went into effect in 2004.  This year is significant and I will return to it momentarily.  The law states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly expose another person to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B or hepatitis C.  Prior knowledge and willing consent to the exposure is a defense to a charge brought under this paragraph. A violation of this subsection shall be a felony.” Mississippi code 97-27-14 (1)  She faces up to ten years in prison. 

If this law had been passed prior to 1987, it would have been unfortunate but understandable.  At that time HIV, hepatitis B and C were diseases that were relatively untreatable.  A person who discovered he or she was HIV+ was looking at a life expectancy of under 10 years.  If the person did not know their status until an AIDS diagnosis was made, was looking at a life expectancy of under 2 years.  There were no viable treatments.  In 2004 however, not only are there viable treatments, the life expectancy in this country has exceeded the 20 year plus mark making HIV infection at best a chronically managable disease.  It is quite possible that a person diagnosed today with HIV for them to live to the average life expectancy in the US.   This however, does not excuse a person’s responsibility in not telling their prospective partner of their status.  It only places the law into a different context for when it was passed.  We allegedly were better informed about this disease in 2004 than in 1987. 

But let’s look a bit closer into that responsibility to discuss ones sexual health with a partner.  We have major taboos about sex.  So to criminalize the not revealing of ones status does not make sense when we as a society cannot even talk openly about healthy sexual relationships with our teenagers.  The school systems in this state insist on abstinence only education even though the state would allow comprehensive sexual education if the school boards supported it.  Even though research repeatedly finds that abstinence based only education does not prevent or slow down the onset of teenage sexual behavior.   Fear based education never works.  It is opposite to where teens are developmentally which is the age of risk taking.  Developmentally it is better to arm teens with the information and skills in how to make informed decisions.  All other countries who are on par with the US in standards of living have comprehensive sexual education AND the lowest rates of teen pregnancies, teen STI’s, and teen abortions.  Why?  Because sex is not a taboo subject but a recognized healthy part of being human. 

If we taught that it was okay to talk about sexual relationships with one another, and taught how to bring up the subject of sexual behaviors and health in a relationship; then the wife might have been taught the skills in how to bring up this sensitive subject with her husband; who by the way has tested negative for the virus and so has their 4 year old son.  He also would have been taught the skills in how to handle a difficult subject matter.    Sigh… instead we criminalize the not telling instead of teaching the skills in how to discuss sensitive relationship topics.   How barbaric are we? 

Fortunately for Unitarian Universalists and members of the United Church of Christ, we have jointly developed a curriculum called Our Whole Lives (OWL) which is a comprehensive sexual education program for our young people.  It teaches the skills needed to have healthy sexual relations including how to discuss the sensitive topics in relationships.    The facilitators of this curriculum are trained in how to teach this course.  The parents are required to attend an orientation class prior to their children’s participation to learn exactly what is being discussed and encouraged to further the discussion with their children at home. 

One more thing…  Does this law set the precedent for passing a law making it a felony for knowingly exposing second hand smoke to minors and others?  We know that smoke and second hand smoke causes cancer and heart disease both potentially terminal diseases?  With the children, smoking would become a form of child abuse, permitting the state to remove the child from an unsafe environment.   I didn’t think so.



  1. While I understand that the law was probably passed due to homophobia and a desire to pump up right wing credentials, I do still think that knowingly exposing your spouse and child to a disease which could have been prevented had you warned your spouse is a reprehensible act. Your analogy of exposing kids to secondhand smoke is a good one, and I don’t think that the lack of a law against the damage caused by secondhand smoke somehow makes the HIV-related law bad; it simply makes me think that both should be punishable. Maybe not felonies, but if I harm my spouse – and more importantly, my child, who had no defense – then at a minimum I ought to face some sort of child welfare/custody penalty (monitoring or whatnot).

    So I do agree with you that it’s a bad law, passed out of fear, but it’s a sorry situation and not one where I’d be inclined to defend the mother too much; taboo or no taboo about sex it’s a life-threatening illness and failing to disclose that, or any other illness that you’re aware of pre-marriage, is a nasty thing to do to another living being.


  2. Steve: You make good comments. Yet, I still believe that the prevention piece by giving people the skills to be able to raise these difficult conversations is part of the solution. Fortunately for this family, neither husband nor son were infected. I also stated that the wife is not excused from her responsibility to reveal her status to her partner(s).

    Here’s another question, had she told her husband prior to marriage her status and he married her with full knowledge. Should she be arrested and charged with a felony for becoming pregnant and placing her unborn child at risk, who is unable to make an informed decision? I do not know if Mississippi has a mandatory testing law for pregnant women, some states do. Since the late 1990’s, medical advancements have been able to reduce transmission of HIV to the fetus to a remarkable low rate. If Mississippi did not have such a mandate enabling them to follow up with appropriate pre-natal care and/or she also did not reveal her status to her doctors, she is very lucky that her son was not born infected.

  3. I always thought MS had a mandatory testing law for pregnant women. I’ve been tested all three times I was pregnant and so has every other pregnant woman I’ve known in Mississippi. If you test positive (I know someone who did), you have to have a C-Section, which lowers the risk of infecting the newborn. I don’t know how this woman kept it from her husband.

    Regardless of why the law was passed, it’s a good one. Exposing children to second-hand smoke should be considered abuse, and I think it was a great analogy.

    But I agree with you that the time and money spent passing such laws, if instead directed toward education and prevention, would be more effective and more humane. In this country and especially in this state, we perpetuate ignorance and then punish it.

    It’s comforting to have my daughter enrolled in our church’s OWL classes, and as an educator it upsets me that we cannot discuss sexuality at school, outside the context of abstinence-only, fear-driven “education”.

    Many of my students just left a backward seminar called “Sexual Revolution”, and were bribed to go by the prizes they could win for attending: a 4-wheeler, a Wii, iPhones, etc.

    My hope is that the sudden revival of this issue all over Mississippi, coupled with Congress’ serious examination (finally) of the effects of abstinence only education, are just signs of an extinction burst in the conservatives’ battle to keep this facet of humanity from being discussed openly in this region. We shall see!

  4. Brandi: Thank you for your comments. After writing my comment to Steve, I did some additional research regarding HIV laws and transmission. It has been a while since my days of running a non-profit serving people with HIV/AIDS and providing AIDS Prevention education. New Jersey just passed mandatory HIV Testing for pregnant women. The recommendation by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta is to strongly encourage all women who are pregnant to be tested for HIV infection. The mother can opt out of testing but it must be in writing and placed in her file. Current pre-natal care for HIV infected women includes anti-retroviral drugs and c-sections which reduces perinatal transmission to less than 2%. Breast feeding is an absolute no. I was unable to find out if Mississippi has mandatory testing or simply the strong recommendation to test with the option to say no to testing in writing. Regarding pregnancy, I think it is wise to test since the protocols for pre-natal care are life-saving.

    What I have discovered with young people who successfully complete the OWL program is that they become resources to their peers with accurate sexual education information. I am glad that your child is participating in this program. It will prepare her to be able to make good healthful decisions in her relationships when the time comes. Blessings,

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