THE repeal of Section 19A of the Victorian Crimes Act, specifically criminalising the transmission of HIV, has passed the upper house of the Victorian Parliament with bipartisan and cross-bench support.

The only law of its kind in Australia, and while 19A has never successfully been used to convict, it has widely been considered to contribute to the stigma experienced by people living with HIV.

The law singled out intentional HIV transmission for harsher penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment, higher than the 20-year maximum for manslaughter, despite existing criminal offences being sufficient to deal with such acts.

Activist and HIV Legal Working Group chair Paul Kidd led the campaign to repeal 19A, and told the Star Observer the reform would go towards reducing HIV stigma affecting everybody in the community.

“A core part of our argument about section 19A from the very beginning is that even though only a tiny number of people have ever been directly affected by it, we believe that this is a law that affects everybody, and that everybody who is HIV-positive is impacted by the negative effects of this law and of criminalisation generally,” Kidd said.

“When people are criminalised it perpetuates stigma, and often when you look at the people who have gone through the criminal justice system they are victims of stigma.”

HIV organisations also responded to the repeal, praising cross-party support in Victoria for a public health-based approach to both HIV, vital not only for people living with the virus but for efforts to reduce transmissions.

“Today we can be proud that Victoria has repealed its HIV-specific criminal law, and in doing so, reaffirmed its commitment to treating HIV as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue,” Living Positive Victoria chief executive Brent Allan said.

Victorian AIDS Council chief executive Simon Ruth agreed: “Our organisations strongly believe that HIV should be treated as a health issue, and that criminal prosecutions should only be used in cases where transmission occurs and there is evidence the alleged perpetrator acted with intent.”

During today’s debate of the repeal in the upper house, MPs from both major parties and the cross bench spoke in support.

“Provisions such as [19A] amount to a declaration that people living positive are second class citizens,” said Labor’s Harriet Shing, highlighting the importance of the repeal to reducing HIV stigma.

Australian Sex Party upper house MP Fiona Patten recalled her own memories of widespread public fear around HIV infection, and echoed Shing’s comments about the HIV stigma.

“I hope that the repeal of 19A, and other work, continues to reduce the stigma people living with HIV face every day,” Patten said.

Former health minister David Davis praised parliament’s bipartisan support for the repeal.

“I’m very pleased this has been a bipartisan set of steps,” he said.

“A public health-based approach, not a criminal approach, [is] the way forward.”

Davis and others also praised the work of community advocates in getting the reform through, and highlighted the work still to be done to reduce HIV infections and support people living with HIV.

After a years-long campaign, the community-based push to repeal section 19A had success during last year’s AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, where both major parties committed to address the discrimination associated with the law.

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