HIV Modernization Movement—Indiana

Modernizing Laws
An Indiana coalition takes the first steps toward reforming HIV criminal codes
by Chip Alfred

hmmFollowing the success of Colorado’s “Mod Squad” [A&U, September 2016], a new group in Indiana has set its sights on modernizing the Hoosier state’s HIV criminalization statutes. The HIV Modernization Movement–Indiana (HMM) was launched after an Indiana delegation of ten people spearheaded by Dr. Carrie Foote, attended the 2016 HIV is Not a Crime II conference, presented by SERO and the Positive Women’s Network (PWN-USA). Foote, Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), is a well-known activist who has been living with HIV since 1988. After SERO Executive Director Sean Strub delivered a lecture on HIV criminalization in her “AIDS and Society” class at IUPUI, Foote was approached by a student named John W. Coberg II. He shared with his professor that he was an openly gay man and was recently diagnosed with HIV. At the time, Foote was seeking help with the HIV legislation reform project. “She saw how passionate I was,” Coberg, thirty-two, tells A&U. “Dr. Carrie told me she wanted someone who is HIV-positive who had a voice. I guess I fit the bill.” HMM was established in June, 2016 with Foote as the chair and Coberg as co-chair. The pair formed a broad coalition of people living with HIV, family members, students, professors, public health authorities, community leaders and legal advisors.

“To be at the forefront of this fight, HIV-positive people should be the ones leading it,” says Coberg II, who points out that about half of the members of HMM’s steering committee are people living with HIV. HMM’s goal is to reform existing HIV criminalization laws with a focus on the following principles:

A criminal law must (1) be based on criminal intent, and conduct likely to transmit, (2) only include punitive measures that are proportionate to the harm, and (3) not be specific to HIV.

In Indiana, there are six statutes with HIV-specific language. HMM will focus first on the “Duty to Warn” law, which can include felony charges for HIV-positive individuals who fail to comply. The law criminalizes nondisclosure of HIV or hepatitis B (HBV) status when a person engages in sexual or needle sharing activity that has been shown to “epidemiologically transmit a dangerous communicable disease [specifically HIV, HBV and AIDS].” “Language matters with everything when you’re trying to reform or repeal existing laws,” Coberg asserts. “We want to change the language so people don’t feel any more stigmatized or marginalized than they already are, and we want it to reflect accurate science.”

When anyone in Indiana is diagnosed with HIV, the individual is required to sign the Duty to Warn form. If the client refuses to sign the form, the provider is required to document this, and to note that the client was advised of the Duty to Warn law. Coberg remarks that this form wouldn’t be quite so objectionable if a person only had to complete it once. “I was diagnosed and signed the form in my doctor’s office. Then I went to a local ASO [AIDS service organization], where I had to sign four more. Five of them in less than one year,” he says with exasperation. “I had to be reminded over and over that I could be a criminal and I could be prosecuted.”

HMM is conducting research on the Duty to Warn law and how existing laws are being applied. Also in the works are educational presentations for ASOs and health department staffers. To broaden the coalition, HMM will facilitate a community forum, encouraging interested groups and individuals to provide feedback and get involved in the campaign. Now, nearly two years after the largest HIV outbreak in the state’s history, Hoosiers are more likely to pay attention. More than 190 cases, attributed to an opioid epidemic and needle sharing, were ultimately tied to the outbreak. “It brought HIV awareness, especially to prevention and treatment,” Coberg acknowledges.

As a person living with HIV, he says, “All we want is to have a normal life without the worry of being charged with a crime.” At the core of the reform movement, he believes, is rethinking our attitudes for people today who are surviving and thriving with HIV and building alliances. “We all share something. Being part of the global network of people living with HIV is how we’re going to change HIV laws all over the world.”

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A&U welcomes your HIV criminalization story ideas or suggestions. Please contact Chip Alfred, Editor at Large, at [email protected].