Oklahoma Proposes Criminalizing STIs

Oklahoma legislature

The Oklahoma House recently passed a bill, 78-14, making it a crime to intentionally or recklessly spread several sexually transmitted infection (STIs). Those found guilty would be convicted of a felony and punished with between two and five years in prison. The sponsors of the bill believe that this will encourage testing and prevent the spread of STIs in the state, but public health experts strongly disagree.

Oklahoma already has a law that makes it a crime to intentionally spread gonorrhea, syphilis, or smallpox (which is not an STI and has been eradicated in North America since the early 1950s). A separate law criminalizes intentional HIV transmission. The current bill would add other conditions to the list of potentially criminal transmission including chlamydia, genital herpes, HPV, hepatitis B, and trichomoniasis.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Toni Hassenback, says that the bill is aimed at those who “are knowingly and willingly infecting people with this disease.” But the bill’s language about what constitutes criminal transmission is very vague. It says that someone is guilty of a felony if they spread one of these conditions “with intent” or if they are found to “recklessly be responsible for the spread” of one of these conditions. Jeff Burdge of H.O.P.E. Testing told local media, “Reckless is not defined in the bill, which leaves an open door for unnecessary lawsuits and persecutions.”

Making people reluctant to access [sexual health] services because of fear of prosecution is antithetical to the goals of public health.

Many STIs have no symptoms which means many people transmit them without ever knowing they had one. The lack of symptoms also makes it difficult for someone to know exactly when they got an STI or who they got it from. At the very least, this makes it hard to enforce a law like this. At worst, it opens people up to complaints from former partners that may or may not be warranted. HPV, for example, can lie undetected for decades years before causing oral or anal cancer, and we have no screening tests for this infection in men.

Hassenback believes the threat of jail time will encourage testing, “If you could be punished for doing something like this, I would think you would be incentivized to be tested to make sure you don’t go to jail for doing something like this.” The exact opposite result, however, seems more likely: people may stop getting tested because they believe that they can’t get prosecuted for intentionally spreading a disease if they never knew they had it.

“STIs are not a crime. They are a fact of life that happen to millions of Americans each year. People dealing with STIs need care not punishment,” explained ASHA’s President Lynn Barclay. “Moreover, the only way we are going to stop the spread of STIs is through widely available testing, treatment, and prevention. Making people reluctant to access these services because of fear of prosecution is antithetical to the goals of public health.”

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Oklahoma legislature

Oklahoma Bill Would Criminalize STIs

The Oklahoma House recently passed a bill making it a crime to intentionally or recklessly spread several STIs. Those found guilty would be convicted of a felony and punished with between two and five years in prison.

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