Should intentional infection be a crime?

Proposed reforms to Angola's Penal Code have divided opinion in the country about whether HIV-positive people who intentionally infect others with the virus should be punished.

The law under discussion calls for a sentence of between three and 10 years in prison for those who knowingly pass on infectious diseases, including HIV. Some argue that the law will act as a deterrent; others say it will bring more problems than benefits.

"Criminalisation is going to backfire. It goes against human rights and the fight against discrimination, and it won't prevent intentional infection," Roberto Brandt Campos, a coordinator with UNAIDS in Angola, told IRIN/PlusNews.

UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation voiced their opposition to such a measure being introduced anywhere in the world in a document released in 2007, saying that it represented a step backwards in HIV prevention efforts.

This is not the first time such a law has been tabled in Angola: the country introduced legislation relating to HIV and AIDS in 2004 but a measure calling for the criminalisation of purposeful infection was among those not included.

Victim and executioner

According to Campos, one of the main difficulties with such a law is determining the intention to infect. In his view, proving transmission from one specific individual to another is already difficult, and proving that an infection was intentional even more so. "Transmitting the virus out of negligence is different from transmitting it in on purpose," he stressed.

Carolina Pinto, an activist with the non-governmental organisation Luta pela Vihda (Fight for Life in Portuguese), believes those who infect their partners on purpose should be punished, but acknowledges that the line between negligence and intention is a thin one.

"Doing it on purpose is different from not telling, but those who have the virus must accept their condition and protect their partner's life," she said, adding that both partners should take some responsibility for protecting themselves.

Even so, Pinto, who is HIV positive, said there were some behaviours that suggested deliberate transmission. "If it happened once, okay; but if the person continues to practice unprotected sex even while knowing that he or she is infected, I think it's on purpose," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

''People are going to think: "if there's a law that says I'm going to be penalised, it's better not to know my HIV status'''

In cases of sexual transmission, Campos worries that such a law would only deepen the damaging perception that people who contract the virus are victims and those who give it to them are their executioners.

"There is no such thing as a victim; people are the subjects of their own life stories," Campos said. "Sex is a two-person relationship, in which responsibility is necessarily shared."

In cases of mother-to-child HIV transmission, Campos said criminalisation could set a precedent for children to take their parents to court. He cited a case in Florida, in the United States, where a boy sued his mother for giving him HIV. "Parents will feel intimidated about revealing their condition. All this does is feed the chain of stigma and discrimination."

Unintended consequences

In a country where people often don't reveal their HIV-positive status out of a very real fear of rejection, Campos argued that criminalisation would only heighten such fears, and mentioned the example of an HIV-positive woman who became an activist and went public on television. The residents of her neighbourhood did not want their district to be shown in the television report.

"With this level of discrimination, how can you expect someone to have the courage to take the test and then tell their partner?" he said.

Criminalising intentional transmission could also have the unintentional affect of discouraging voluntary testing. "People are going to think: 'if there's a law that says I'm going to be penalised, it's better not to know my HIV status'," Campos said.

António Coelho, director of the AIDS Service Organisation Network (Anaso), believes a more practical approach to breaking the chain of HIV transmission is to counsel people on how to change their behaviour.

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