DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate voted 48-0 Thursday to modify a state law addressing the transmission of contagious and infectious diseases in a way that backers said would still punish reckless behavior but also encourage treatment and testing for HIV while removing a detrimental social stigma.
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, the floor manager of Senate File 2297, said the legislation is intended to revise a current law that he characterized as “draconian, outdated and discriminatory” in addressing the transmission of AIDS, HIV, hepatitis or meningitis.
The current law passed in 1998 says that if someone knowingly exposes another person to HIV without that person’s consent or knowledge, with or without the intent to transmit the decision, the person with HIV can be convicted of a Class B felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. A person can be convicted even if they took precautions to prevent the transmission of a disease or virus and even if the partner did not contract the virus.
“We should not stigmatize somebody because of a disease, and we really shouldn’t criminalize somebody because they have a disease. We need to encourage public testing, we need to advance public health. That’s what this legislation will help us do today,” Hogg said. “Modern medicine has changed, our understanding of HIV has improved and our law needs to be updated to reflect those changes.”
Under the new Contagious and Infectious Disease Transmission Act, which would become effective with Gov. Terry Branstad’s signature, the Class B crime for knowingly transmitting one of the covered diseases would remain in place, but there also would be lesser offenses for situations in which there was no intent or knowledge present.
The measure, which goes to the Iowa House for consideration, also provides Class D criminal felonies carrying prison time of up to five years for reckless transmission of an infectious disease or when there is intent to transmit, even if there is no transmission. The bill also makes it a serious misdemeanor for reckless behavior that does not result in the transmission of a contagious or infectious disease and an affirmative defense for people who follow a medical regimen and behavioral recommendations of a physician or public health official.
“This is not a situation where if somebody has a disease they have to wear a scarlet letter,” Hogg said. “There’s no get-out-of-jail free card here. A person has to do what they’ve been advised to do.”
Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, said the change ensures that “justice is blind” in Iowa and that punishment “is proportionate to the crime that is committed,” something that he said is not the case under current law.
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Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, the Legislature’s only openly gay member, praised Schneider for supporting the bill through the committee process, telling him, “You’re doing a wonderful thing for a group of people who have been marginalized in our society. You have no idea what this means to them.”
McCoy said SF2297 doesn’t make everybody happy, but he added, “the vast majority makes me happy” and sends an important message that “we will no longer stigmatize one group.
“I believe we are changing the face of Iowa today in a very positive and a very helpful way.”