Is Criminalization of HIV Transmission Effective? Swedish Case Reveals Why the Answer is No


Earlier this month, a 31-year-old woman in Sweden was sentenced to one and a half years in prison for having unprotected sex without disclosing to her partner beforehand that she is living with HIV.

Even a perfunctory news search reveals that this is not the first time the Swedish justice system has applied criminal sanctions to potential HIV-transmission. In January, a 20-year-old man was sentenced to eight months in prison for having unprotected sex without disclosing his status. In December 2006, a 34-year-old woman got two months, and in January 2003, a 32-year-old woman one year. All of these sentences also required the person living with HIV to pay monetary damages to their former sex-partners.

For anyone who cares about human rights from a health and discrimination angle, these cases raise multiple red flags.

For starters, consensual sex between consenting adults should, in principle, never be subject to government control or regulation. Moreover, the criminalization of HIV transmission has multiple negative outcomes. It leads to distrust in the health and justice systems; it can discourage people from seeking to know their HIV status; it adds to the stigmatization of those living with HIV; and it is ineffective in bringing down HIV transmission.

In fact, UNAIDS recommends that governments limit criminal sanctions for HIV transmission to cases where all of three conditions are met: the person charged 1) knows he or she is living with HIV; 2) acts with the intention of transmitting the virus; and 3) actually transmits it. UNAIDS also recommends that cases of such intentional HIV-transmission should be tried under generic criminal provisions for bodily harm or assault, and not under HIV-specific provisions.

Public health and human rights activists are clear on this. That is why the Swedish Embassy in France was defiled with paint-filled condoms in protest against the 2003 ruling. And that is also why my own reaction to the ruling was to declare it “bad” over twitter, a statement that was re-tweeted several times.

A closer read of the cases highlighted in the Swedish media, however, leads me to reconsider, at least in part. 

If the media-accounts are accurate, the Swedish government has, in fact, partially followed UNAIDS recommendations. The convicted individuals all knew their HIV status and the cases were brought under general criminal law provisions on grave assault, physical abuse, and attempt to cause physical harm. So far so good.

The two remaining questions — intent and actual transmission — are more difficult to gauge.

Consider this.  

In most of the cases, the convicted person either has multiple convictions over several years for the same thing, or the conviction is based on multiple unprotected sexual interactions with different partners without disclosure. It is perhaps valid for prosecutors to ask if, absent proof of intent which is hard to produce, the fact that an individual living with HIV repeatedly and knowingly exposes someone else to a deadly virus shouldn’t count for something.

Further, actual HIV transmission may not be the only harm caused. The 20-year-old convicted man was charged with having unprotected sex with eight women, none of whom ultimately ended up HIV-positive, though they all claimed to have suffered severe emotional trauma as a result of the experience. In cases of domestic violence we often ask prosecutors to consider emotional distress as real harm, so why require actual transmission in order to prove harm in this case?

Then again, consider this.

The 20-year-old man was born HIV-positive and is being charged as an adult also for those unprotected sexual encounters that occurred when he was a teenager. He was initially placed in solitary confinement, seemingly because of his HIV status.

Also, one of the convicted women alleged she had been raped.  The male partner produced evidence to the contrary and she later withdrew the allegation. Nevertheless, coercion and fear is highly relevant when it comes to decisions about how and when to disclose HIV status. Research indicates that many women in fact are reluctant to disclose their HIV status because they quite legitimately fear abuse.

And with regard to actual harm caused, it is at least possible that the ramped-up attention to the cases have contributed in some part to the severity of the emotional distress of the sex partners.

It is, of course, reckless to knowingly expose anyone to real danger, also through potential HIV-transmission, even if the danger ultimately does not materialize. This is a notion the UNAIDS recommendations to a large extent fail to acknowledge.

But the highly publicized use of the criminal law in Sweden to punish those living with HIV for being timid about their health status does not make it easier for anyone to disclose. So perhaps the real question with regard to any government’s approach to HIV transmission should not be whether it follows UNAIDS recommendations, but rather if it is effective.  An educated guess says, not so much.

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