17 November 2005

Don't it make you a weapon?

So, there's this guy in Canada. He has HIV. This (unfortunately) is not overly uncommon.

What is perhaps uncommon is that he has been charged with two counts of First-Degree Murder. In Canada, that's the most serious offense in criminal law. Wait, not that he was charged at all, but why he was charged.

He allegedly knowingly spread HIV/AIDS to 13 women. In all 13 cases, he was initially charged with aggravated sexual assault, the AIDS virus being considered the weapon.

Well, two of the women are now dead. One died in December 2003 and the other in May 2004.

It seems that under Canadian law, this charge can be commuted to a first-degree murder charge if the person dies as a result of the original offence.

The distinguishing factor would have to be that the women asked about his STD status and he claimed he was clean, knowing full well that he wasn't.

So, now there's a debate. On one side, you have certain (NOT all) AIDS activists who say that turning the transmission of AIDS into an indictable offense will stigmatize an already margianlied population. On the other, you have the people who say that it's about deterence and that people with AIDS have to take responsibility for themselves and for ensure that they don't infect other people.

I think this is a fair and excellent debate. Yesterday morning on The Current, they had some guests exchange various viewpoints on this issue. You can listen to this debate here.

I'm going to be purposely controversial, because I know this isn't an easy question to answer.

I am of the opinion that this man has to take responsibility for his alleged actions. I can't quite recall, but I seem to remember hearing something years ago about some guy who did something similar because he was angry at women because he got AIDS from a woman. Maybe it was an urban myth. Unfortunately, "guy spreading AIDS" conjures up a lot of hits on Google.

I don't mean to be glib. This would have huge implications. For one, prisons have higher infection rates than the general population. Will every one who transmits AIDS in a prison be subject to a murder charge? And what if they're in on murder? Do they become "dangerous offenders"? I know this isn't a simple, "Yeah, throw the book at the (alleged) disease-spreading bastard."

But I do think there needs to be accountability. Are the women accountable for their actions? Absolutely. If he was a stranger, they should have (and apparently did) asked his STD status or insisted on him wearing a condom. If he was known to them, they hopefull had the conversation with him. If they didn't, well they don't deserve AIDS, but he shouldn't be held accountable for their lack of prudence.

I think it's really going to come down to whether he actually hid the information from these women; and further than that it will be a question of semantics. Does answering "Yes" to "Have you ever been tested for HIV/AIDS/STDs?" require an immediate disclosure of the results of those tests? Is it unethical to stay silent if the follow-up "What was the result?" never comes?

Even as I write this I find it difficult to retain a sense of conviction in my argument because I know the pitfalls. I know that education has to come first; that new patients need to be taught what their responsibilities should be to themselves and others. I know that even "protected" or "safer" sex carries risks. I know that unless you follow a blood sample from vein to test result print-out, you're really just taking a huge leap of faith when your intended sexual partner says, "No, I don't have an incurable, fatal STD." And I know that this is a group of people who, first of all, suffer from enough stigmatization, and secondly have enough to deal without worrying about a first-degree murder charge.

But in this man's case, omission is the key. And I find it untenable that someone who KNOWS they have this incurable, fatal STD would risk infecting someone else ON PURPOSE (allegedly). AIDS is not influenza (avian or other). It is not something that can be floating in the air or on a doorknob for hours after an infected person deposits it there. There is intent in that there are limited means to transmit this disease, and if you know you have it, you (should) know how to prevent someone else from getting it from you.

The whole debate makes me sad. Know why? Watch And the Band Played On, an excellent Historical Drama about the discovery of the AIDS epidemic and the political infighting of the scientific community hampering the early fight with it (courtesy IMDB). If people had just listened to Matthew "what-have-I-done-lately?"* Modine, and not been so concerned with prestige, homophobia (Regan), and "It doesn't affect me" syndrome, then maybe we really wouldn't have to worry about legal ethics like this.

And don't even get me started on Africa.

*Actually, quite a bit, but where are the baby-faced promo tours?


Note: I use the "alleged" tag so much because, I do believe in "innocent until proven guilty", in theory.

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