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Tuesday 7 June 2011

US: (Update) Nebraska passes unscientific, stigmatising body fluid assault law

Update: June 7 2011 

I've just learned via my colleagues at the Positive Justice Project in the US, that The Assault with Bodily Fluids Bill (LB226) introduced into the Nebraska State Legislature by Senator Mike Gloor recently passed into law with no amendments.

For further background on the bill, and Sen. Gloor's motivation for introducing it, read this excellent piece from Todd Heywood in The Michigan Messenger.

“The entire bill is hinged on gross ignorance about the actual routes and risks of HIV transmission,” says Beirne Roose-Snyder, staff attorney for the Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York City. “Nowhere in the nearly three-decades-long history of the epidemic has a corrections officer been infected by the routes described in the bill. As for serious misinformation, there is real harm caused to law enforcement staff who themselves may be living with HIV, and to those who are not but who are being sold an unsound bill of goods on how to protect themselves, by placing a legislative imprimatur on the unfounded fears about how HIV and other diseases are spread. It also clearly has a negative impact on the way people with HIV are treated in and out of the criminal justice system, and has resulted in people serving decades of time behind bars on the basis of ignorance and hysteria.”
This latest development is extremely disappointing, and suggests that the trend of passing new laws that inappropriately criminalise people with HIV (and, sometimes other blood-borne infections such as hepatitis B or C) in a misguided attempted to protect police or other public safety officers is not reversing. 

A similarly unscientific and stigmatising bill – proposing mandatory testing and/or immediate access to medical records of anyone who exposes their bodily fluids to an emergency worker – has recently been proposed in British Columbia, Canada. Read this letter from the BC Civil Liberties Association about why the bill provides a false sense of security and may well be unconstitutional.

Original post: February 1st 2011

This Friday, February 4th, the Nebraska State Legislature will debate The Assault with Bodily Fluids Bill which would criminalise striking any public safety officer with any bodily fluid (or expelling bodily fluids toward them) and includes a specific increase of penalty to a felony (up to five years and/or $10,000 fine) if the defendant is HIV-positive and/or has Hepatitis B or C.

The Bill ignores the fact that HIV cannot be transmitted through spit, urine, vomit, or mucus; punishes the decision to get tested for HIV; and will not keep public safety officers safer, but rather will reinforce misinformation and stigma about HIV.

Download the full text of Nebraska Legislative Bill 226 here
Two major problems with the Bill are:

1. The proposed language in Sec. 2(3) is contrary to science
2. Codifying the breach of doctor /patient confidentiality in Sec. 2(5) is extremely serious, and should not be undertaken with no public health benefit
  • It is extremely important for public and individual health for people with HIV to get tested at the earliest opportunity, start timely treatment, and stay on treatment. This all hinges on having a good relationship with their doctor or health care provider. Forcing doctors and health care providers to reveal private health information, or even testify about it, will have a negative impact on patient trust of the health care system and willingness to remain engaged in HIV care. The plain language in Sec. 2(5) would force any person charged under this statute to be tested for the identified viruses, or force the opening of their medical records for previous testing results.
The Positive Justice Project (PJP) has produced a set of talking points (download here) that summarises the problems with the Bill, and with HIV-specific legislation in general.  PJP highlights that the wording of the Bill is so broad that it would allow for the following Kafkaesque situations:
  • If a person with HIV accidentally vomits in the direction of a medical officer in a prison infirmary, they could be sentenced to five more years in prison.
  • If someone accidentally sneezes in the direction of a police officer, a judge must grant a court order for their medical records and they may be subjected to involuntary HIV antibody and hepatitis B and C antigen testing if the police officer decides to press charges.
  • An inmate who spits or vomits in the direction of a corrections officer, even without hitting or intending to hit the officer, can be forcibly tested for HIV and hepatitis and if found to have any of these viruses, charged with a felony.
  • An adolescent with HIV or hepatitis held in a juvenile detention facility who spits while being restrained by a corrections officer, or while arguing with a guidance counselor, could wind up serving five years in an adult prison facility.
PJP asks anyone in the United States who cares about this issue to contact their State representative (using the talking points to highlight the many problems with the Bill) and specifically encourages any networks or individuals in Nebraska to contact:

State Senator Mike Gloor, who introduced the Bill. 
District 35
Room #1523
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2617

Sandra Klocke
State AIDS Director
Office of Disease Control and Health Promotion
Nebraska Department Health and Human Services
301 Centennial Mall South, 3rd Floor
P.O. Box 95026
Lincoln, Nebraska, 68509-5044
Phone: 402-471-9098-
Fax: 402-471-6446


Heather Younger
State Prevention Manager
Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
HIV Prevention
Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services
301 Centennial Mall South
Lincoln, Nebraska, 68509
Phone: 402-471-0362



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