HIV Is Not a Crime: It’s Time for Missouri To End the Stigma and Change the Law

More than three decades ago, my biological parents tested positive for HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and were diagnosed with AIDS in the late 80s and mid-90s. My dad’s death came first in 1989, followed by my mom’s death in 1994, just two years before breakthroughs toward truly effective treatments were achieved in 1996. Every day, I think of my parents, and I think of every Missourian living with HIV.

For years, it has been my mission to help Missourians understand the oppression that faces people living with HIV.

In 1988, during the height of the HIV epidemic, Missouri made HIV a crime. Unfortunately, HIV is criminalized in 34 states despite medical advances related to combatting the virus. There is still HIV discrimination, stigma, and ignorance pertaining to the epidemic.

Under current state laws, Missourians can only be prosecuted if they know their status, casting a chilling effect on testing and treatment access. The outdated language includes the exchange of saliva through spitting and biting as a way the disease can be transferred; these transmission methods have been scientifically disproved for decades, but the law has remained the same, with many Missourians still prosecuted using the antiquated standards.

Missouri statute mandates a minimum 10-year sentence for transmitting HIV, a Class A felony, and a minimum five-year sentence for knowingly exposing someone to the disease, a Class B felony. 

To think that my parents could have faced felony charges for their health status if they were alive today is unacceptable to me.

THIS IS WHY MISSOURI MUST MODERNIZE OUR STATE’S HIV-SPECIFIC LAW IF WE WANT TO MEANINGFULLY SUPPORT PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV.

We are one step closer to achieving that goal.

On December 1, World AIDS Day, the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, staffed by Empower Missouri, took a step in that direction by hosting a virtual press conference with three Missouri legislators who are determined to modernize Missouri’s HIV laws during the 2021 Legislative Session. 

Senator-Elect Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston, Senate District 27) has been a champion on this issue since 2018 and is again sponsoring her “Harm Reduction Package.” The three bill set includes measures to modernize Missouri’s outdated and medically inaccurate HIV-specific criminal statutes, a needle and syringe exchange program, and the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.

Representative Phil Christofanelli (R-St. Peters, House District 105), is carrying the HIV policy modernization bill on the House side, and is also sponsoring legislation to expand access to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). The bill would allow pharmacists to prescribe PEP and PrEP, increasing access and reducing transmission of the virus. Senator-Elect Greg Razer (D-Kansas City, Senate District 7) has filed the PEP/PrEP bills in the Missouri Senate.  Bills filed thus far include Senate Bill (SB) 64, SB 65, SB 66, and SB 79.

These bills are a start to ending criminalization, stigma and discrimination related to HIV, but truly ending these horrible standards require serious work and began with education. A person living with HIV who takes medicine today is very likely to achieve an undetectable viral load. This means they cannot transmit the virus. Our state’s HIV-specific law was originally passed in the late eighties, when our cultural understanding of HIV was informed by fear and stigma. Using criminalization as a public health intervention simply does not work, and it upholds the stigma and fear of HIV that got us here in the first place.  

Missouri is one of seven states identified by the federal government as a priority jurisdiction for Phase 1 of the national Ending the HIV Epidemic plan. The plan relies on data science to inform where intensive testing and linkage to care should be administered across the state. On the surface, this may sound like a good idea, but it also highlights a grave concern. HIV is severely criminalized in Missouri, and you can only be prosecuted if you know that you are living with HIV. While knowing your status is the first step to being linked to HIV services and care, in Missouri it also makes you vulnerable to unjust criminalization in the blink of an eye.

Our state’s antiquated and harmful HIV-specific laws criminalize actions that we definitely know cannot transmit HIV, such as spitting. Our law also places the burden of proof on the accused. People living with HIV must be able to prove that they disclosed their HIV status to sexual partners—in the courtroom, it often essentially comes down to one word against another, and people living with HIV are considered guilty until proven innocent. 

I think about how people living with HIV deserve to thrive, and they deserve to love and be loved. If we take fighting HIV discrimination and stigma just as seriously as fighting the virus, we can overcome these barriers.

We thank the Missouri policy makers, people living with HIV and other supporters who are engaging in this fight.

Let us march on until victory is won! 

In Solidarity, 

Molly Pearson
Justice Organizer

P.S. By joining the MO HIV Justice Coalition, you can receive regular updates on these and other priority bills and be called to action at key times when your email or phone call can make an important distance. Please join us in ending the stigma and changing the law.

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