Lawmakers weigh how far to go in changing a decades-old law criminalizing HIV

Lawmakers weigh how far to go in changing a decades-old law criminalizing HIV
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, adresses Senate members during the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Friday, August 28, 2020. (Source: Virginia Mercury)

Thirty years ago, HIV was largely considered to be a death sentence.

At a time when the disease was little-understood, even within the health care community,  Virginia joined dozens of states in passing laws that criminalized “infected sexual battery” — making it a felony for someone living with HIV, syphilis or Hepatitis B to engage in sexual activity “with the intent to transmit the infection to another person.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said Virginia, like many states, was driven by the federal government. In 1990, national lawmakers passed the Ryan White CARE Act, which established federal funding for HIV services and treatment. But to receive the funding, states were required to create a legal mechanism to prosecute people who knowingly exposed others to HIV.

Virginia passed its own statute in 1997, making infected sexual battery a Class 6 felony and nondisclosure — or having sex with someone without revealing your status — a Class 1 misdemeanor. Twenty-four years later, McClellan has joined with Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, in an effort to modernize the law.

Finding consensus with other legislators, though, has been a challenge. Their bill to reform the state’s infected sexual battery law passed the Senate late on Friday in a 21-17 vote, with Republicans voting unanimously against the bill. But to gain support among Democrats, McClellan also had to offer a late floor amendment that revised the code section rather than fully repealing it.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.