HIV Is Not a Crime

A new public service announcement (PSA) seeks to amplify the message that laws that criminalize living with HIV are unjust and need to be eradicated. The HIV-specific laws punish people for their HIV-positive serostatus rather than their actions. Overwhelmingly, HIV criminalization laws are based on outdated science about transmission and fear surrounding the virus. The laws also disproportionately target Black men and women.

Produced by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the HIV Is Not a Crime initiative (led by the SERO Project), the PSA is available in two formats—a 60-second TV spot and a longer version approaching five minutes.

The TV spot features Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award recipient, performer André De Shields, who has been living with HIV for over 40 years. “Everyone deserves to be treated fairly under the law,” de Shields says in the spot. “HIV is not a crime.”

The spot also features HIV advocate Robert Suttle, who discusses how fear-based HIV criminalization can stigmatize people living with and at risk for HIV, creating barriers to testing and treatment. Suttle, who is living with HIV and is a founding member of the Sero Project, was charged under Louisiana law for not disclosing his HIV-positive status to a sexual partner (he did). The law doesn’t require actual transmission of HIV or the intent to transmit. Facing up to 10 years in prison, Suttle took a plea deal, but he still had to endure a six-month sentence of hard labor and register as a sex offender for fifteen years.

The TV spot is a shortened version of the full PSA, which leads off with the powerful words of amfAR’s founding international chairman Elizabeth Taylor, speaking about AIDS to the National Press Club on June 3, 1987: “Educational efforts as well as public health policy decisions must be based on the facts, not fear.”

The PSA, which was funded by Gilead Sciences, also includes stories from people who have been impacted by HIV criminalization, including Monique, a woman who discovered she was HIV positive while pregnant, achieved viral suppression on antiretroviral therapy, yet was charged with a crime under an HIV statute in 2005 even though she did not expose or transmit HIV to anyone, including her three children.

Importantly, the PSA reminds us that laws that specify HIV transmission are wholly unnecessary because “legal guardrails already exist for people who knowingly transmit a communicable disease.”

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