Trevor Hoppe, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, gave a talk Thursday afternoon at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender on his book “Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness.” The book talks about how some have been jailed for their diseases, and looks specifically at how individuals with HIV have been treated since the 1980s. Additionally, he looks at how these laws apply to other diseases such as hepatitis and meningitis. Hoppe spoke to an audience of around 75 people about the repercussions of HIV law and recent changes to Michigan HIV law.  

According to his website, Hoppe is a sociologist of sexuality, medicine and the law. He researches how the punishment of those with diseases like HIV came about. Before publishing “Punishing Disease,” he co-edited “The War on Sex” with Prof. David Halperin, which focuses on the criminalization of sex. “Punishing Disease” has received the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Studies.

Hoppe began his talk by explaining the civil law history of diseases, saying although people were quarantined before for contagious diseases, medical advancement in the 20th century allowed people to think they were safer from such diseases.

“In the early 20th century there was all this technology that promised to end infectious disease,” Hoppe said. “The rise of antibiotics, the rise of vaccines and better nutrition and sanitization led people, many people in the medical field who think we could squash communal disease.”

However, in the late 20th century, the rise of diseases like MRSA, Ebola and Lyme disease reinstalled the fear of infectious diseases. HIV in particular was targeted, and lawmakers used punishment as a coercive strategy to fight the disease, Hoppe said.

“Punishment has been kind of top of mind, as the solution to societal problems,” Hoppe said. “We’re using handcuffs and prisons to handle social problems, why not do it for this new disease?”

Hoppe wanted to emphasize the reality of HIV completely changed after 1996 when treatment improved. According to Hoppe, most HIV-positive individuals take a pill a day and have very few side effects from treatments. Furthermore, HIV is not as contagious as it is perceived to be, he said.

“HIV is not the highly contagious disease that many of us believe it is,” he said. “It’s not influenza, it’s not even tuberculosis. When you look at the risk for exposure you can see that. For vaginal intercourse from an HIV-positive man to an HIV-negative woman, without condoms, on average, right, not taking into account any of the other factors, on average we’d expect one in a thousand. One in a thousand probability.”

Hoppe then discussed state laws, pointing out legislation in Michigan and Tennessee as examples, which target and punish those specifically with HIV. In December 2018, Michigan recently changed its law, but its old policy labeled it a felony if an HIV-positive individual had any sexual encounter with a partner without disclosing their status. A transmission of the disease was not required.

“By and large these are felony laws that make it a crime for people living with HIV to have sex with a partner without disclosing that first,” he said. “You don’t have to show that there was transmission under a vast majority of these laws, you don’t have to show that there was risk of transmission, and you don’t have to prove malicious intent, right? None of these things are necessary, all you have to show is there was a sexual encounter, someone was positive, the partner didn’t know.”

Under Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan passed a new law for the criminal aspect of its HIV policy.

“The new law in Michigan is unique,” Hoppe said. “It says if you are undetectable, there’s no legal mandate. It says only vaginal intercourse is criminalized, so oral sex is no longer officially a criminal act if you are HIV-positive. And if you don’t disclose and there’s no transmission the penalty is reduced to a misdemeanor.”

Hoppe said the change was partly due to the work of activist groups in Michigan, but activist groups are now in debate about whether or not the policy change was for the better.

“You have two activist groups on this issue and one was pissed off about the change and one was really happy about it,” Hoppe said. “And the one that was really happy about it said it’s great to have a law that’s hard to enforce. The other group that was pissed off was saying no law is the best law, that we shouldn’t have an HIV-specific law and that if we do it just stigmatizes the disease. So that’s the debate in the policy world, should we have a law that is extremely narrowly tailored so that we end these crazy cases coming around? Or is the best outcome, policy outcome, no law?”

LSA sophomore Laura Sanderson said one key takeaway she had from the event was the low probability of transmission of HIV.

“I was already really interested in the idea of decriminalizing things and then looking at them through a more medical frame,” Sanderson said. “So I’m a lot more interested in that kind of idea and how that can be applied. And then I just was really surprised about — I had no idea how unlikely you are to transmit HIV, I actually didn’t know that it was not an easily transmittable disease, so that was really surprising.”

LSA junior Camilla Lizundia said she was saddened by lawmakers’ stigmatization of HIV as a weapon used by defendants against innocent people.  

“I was really struck by this talk because it talked about how punishment is becoming a legitimate response to disease control,” Lizundia said. “And using HIV to criminalize people for it being a ‘biological weapon’ is quite disheartening.”

LSA sophomore Samantha Redlich agreed, but was optimistic about the new Michigan law change.

“It was interesting to me to learn about two systems that I feel are really broken,” Redlich said. “But I thought it was interesting at the end how he was talking about Michigan’s reform bill that changed disease law, and I’m hopeful that things will change.”


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