The HIV Witch Hunt And Its ConsequencesDecember 1, 2011 No Comments
Last August, an Alberta teen was arrested on charges of aggravated sexual assault after being accused of having unprotected sex without disclosing her HIV-positive status.
Under Canada’s Criminal Code, it is a criminal offense to transmit or expose another person to HIV through unprotected sex or drug injecting equipment if one’s HIV-positive status had not been disclosed.
The Alberta teen came under the radar of Edmonton Police when two males came forward with complaints that the girl had been engaging in unprotected sex without telling her partners that she was HIV-positive. Edmonton Police then took the ethically risqué step of obtaining a court order to publicly release the minor’s name, photograph, and specifics regarding why she was wanted. The teen’s photograph was plastered throughout the media and a modern-day witch hunt ensued. Eventually tips lead Edmonton Police to Edson, Alberta, where the girl was picked up and taken into custody.
According to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, there is no substantiated evidence that Canada’s criminal law is effective at preventing HIV transmission. The concern of HIV advocacy groups is this criminalization may contribute to a social atmosphere of stigmatization and consequently dissuade people from utilizing public health initiatives that have proven to be effective.
The perpetration of discrimination may also discourage those who are living with HIV from disclosing their status. Advocacy groups fear that publicized criminal prosecutions may undermine the philosophy that every person is responsible for his or her own sexual health, including those who are choosing to put themselves at risk by engaging unsafe sex.
Sadly, the focus put on HIV-positive people who put others at risk by failing to disclose their HIV-positive status has negatively skewed social and political discussions regarding the issue, and the acts of these people have had negative effects on people living with HIV due to the enhanced climate of fear that continues to haunt HIV infection.
The stakes are high for HIV-positive people struggling with the issue of disclosure. Negative consequences of disclosure can include rejection, stigmatization, loss of intimacy and relationships, and the threat to personal well-being, such as job loss, housing loss, etc. However, there can be positive rewards to disclosure, as well, such as increased social support, the nurture of one’s sense of self, and the opportunity to authentically express one’s experiences and feelings.
The Edmonton police did not escape scrutiny for their release of the girl’s information, particularly from HIV advocacy groups which questioned their seemingly rash decision: were all other avenues explored before they took this unusual route to track down the teen?
Det. Barb Clover of the Edmonton Police was quoted as saying, “This is a safety concern for the community and we want to ensure that the teen and anyone she has had sexual contact with get the appropriate medical care that they need.” A third complainant did come forward after the warning was publicized.
Whether the decision to release the girl’s name, photograph, and medical condition that aided in her capture outweighs the systemic harm potentially caused by such tactical strategies is a complex issue of ethics. However, there is a simple, yet gravely important reality check bundled up within sad cases such as this, and that reality is the ongoing social stigma attached to HIV and AIDS. If there is, indeed, such negative consequences associated with the criminalization of nondisclosure, it is our job as community members to curb these negative effects via education and giving our support to community health initiatives.
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