On Wednesday, December 11, Representatives Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) and Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis) held a press conference to discuss legislation they had filed to modernize HIV-specific criminal codes in Missouri for the third year in a row. Senator Shalonn “Kiki” Curls (D-Kansas City), who will sponsor this legislation on the Senate side, prepared comments as she was unable to attend. Our bill sponsors were joined by Cale Mitchell of Spectrum Healthcare, David Dandridge of Williams & Associates, and supporters from the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition to provide statements of support for these bills.
Along with the people in the room at the press conference, doctors, AIDS service organizations, and other groups from across the state sent in written statements of support for the efforts. Below are some key points and quotes made at the press conference.
Rep. Rehder connected the effort to modernize HIV to the opioid crisis. She talked about two other bills she filed that day on prescription drug monitoring and syringe access programs and linked those issues with the need to modernize HIV-specific laws. We know that of the top 220 counties at risk for rapid increases in HIV infections due to needle sharing, 13 are in Missouri and located in rural parts of the state.
Rep. McCreery addressed the advancements we’ve made in HIV treatment and prevention and focused on this issue as a bi-partisan, if not non-partisan, one. “Our statutes should reflect the current reality that people living with HIV can live full, healthy, robust lives,” she noted.
Our supporters built on these points in their own remarks. Lynne Meyerkord of AIDS Project of the Ozarks wrote, “HIV positive individuals who are on medication and have an undetectable viral load can no longer transmit the HIV virus. Additionally, folks who are HIV negative can take a pill daily to prevent themselves from becoming infected.” Along with these advancements, there is also medication that can be taken after someone may have been exposed to prevent the occurrence of the infection, a point brought up in the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition’s remarks. Each of these particular medical advancements was mentioned in almost every statement read or submitted for Wednesday’s media event.
One of the most important points brought up during this press conference and in the statements submitted for it was how these laws were created out of fear and increase the stigma of HIV. “The severe penalties of HIV-specific criminal codes spring from bias, misinformation, and fear. They increase stigma, drive testing and treatment underground, and serve to spread HIV by discouraging people to know their status or to seek appropriate treatment if HIV positive,” stated Dr. Fred Rottnek of Saint Louis University in his written letter of support. David Dandridge of Williams & Associates delivered impassioned remarks on behalf of their CEO, Erise Williams, Jr.:
“These laws prosecute HIV-positive individuals for acts of consensual protected or unprotected sex, spitting, or biting, with the underlying belief that blood, saliva, or semen are biological weapons as dangerous as firearms. Minority communities, across the state, that are disproportionately impacted by the AIDS epidemic, know firsthand the impact of being over-policed; and having their lifestyle and behavior viewed as criminal acts, only add to the stigma of HIV/AIDS and makes ending the AIDS epidemic an impossible dream.”
As the organizer for the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, witnessing the amount of support rallied behind this legislation and this movement was incredible. We have an opportunity this session to go even further than we have before, with bills filed on both sides of the General Assembly and support from all corners of the state. Keep up with our progress by signing up for our mailing list and tracking the bills using Fast Democracy.