A controversial motion which seeks to institute legislation to hold persons criminally responsible for wilfully infecting others with HIV was on Thursday sent to a special select committee.
The motion, moved by GAP/ROAR MP Everall Franklin, sought to have the relevant laws of Guyana amended to make the wilful transmission of the HIV virus from one person to another an indictable offence. In addition, it sought to have non-disclosure laws or guidelines be amended to allow for information to be used by prosecution if so required and for hospitals, clinics and such agencies which have the results of tests and other vital information be bound by law to release such information to any court engaged in a matter. The motion also sought to have a charge of attempted murder instituted against any individual found to have endangered the life of another in a wilful manner.
While speaking on the motion, Franklin said that the stigma and discrimination associated with the virus is being propelled by ignorance and noted that the intention of the motion was, while not to remove or dilute existing laws, to ensure that certain obligations of individuals are kept in tact while others enjoy their rights. He said that the motion should be considered from the perspective of a person being tested positive as having contracted HIV having the responsibility of informing partners of his/her status. In addition, a person being raped by someone who is infected with the virus as well as women who become pregnant year after year, and who have tested positive for the virus, should be considered, he said.
Franklin said that the motion acknowledges the hard work being undertaken by the health care system but he argued that the fight should also include the behaviours of individuals. He noted that the application of the law in any form is important to the manifestation of social and cultural values.
He said that he “could not understand the commotion” over the issue, as he lashed out at recent pronouncement by “an international public servant serving here,” adding that “business must first come here in the House before they can be pronounced upon in bad taste.” Franklin said too that statistics indicate the rate of infection if highest among the 15 to 19 age group. In addition, he noted that in 2007, a survey found that 1,700 of each 100,000 have adopted “best practice” measures, where safe sex is concerned. These figures are all low-end, estimates, he noted, adding that nations, including the US and Australia, have passed laws making the wilful spread of HIV a criminal offence.
Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy stated that the motion paves the way for comprehensive national dialogue, which he noted could be led by the house. He posited that Thursday’s sitting was the first time in a CARICOM nation that the issue was being addressed at the level of the National Assembly.
He said that cases of criminalised transmission have not been proven while stigma and discrimination continue to be the most powerful drivers of the disease. He said that the motion would threaten the ground gained nationally in fighting and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and he proposed for the matter to be discussed by a special select committee.
Ramsammy also said that punishment and retribution was not a workable strategy, noting that certain world bodies are currently working to have nations who practice laws relevant to the spread of HIV be annulled.
Ramsammy noted that in Guyana the mortality rate before 2002 as a result of HIV was 9.7% and in 2008, the rate dropped to 4.3%. This is because an aggressive prevention programme is being pursued by the Ministry of Health, he said, and he also noted that in 2009, some 105,000 persons came forward to ascertain their HIV status.
PNCR MP Volda Lawrence said that her party preferred to see more policies adopted to address the issue and she supported the referral to a special select committee for more deliberation. She said that the passing of legislation as proposed in the motion would be counter productive as it could hinder the implementation of solutions being undertaken to fight the spread of the virus which causes AIDS.
She said that criminal procedures have been implemented in countries where addressing the issue is concerned but according to her such measures have not been effective. As regards laws implemented by countries making the wilful spread of HIV a criminal offence, Lawrence stated that such nations have passed laws requiring individuals to give consent to undergo HIV testing.
She added that the proposal would effectively see persons turning away from treatment centres for fear of being prosecuted. She said that the protection of children from contracting the virus during pregnancy as well as preventing the spread of the virus between individuals should be elaborated upon instead of having persons being held criminally liable.
AFC MP Latchmin Punalall, who seconded the motion, said that her party stands for the sanctity of humanity and according to her the time is right to pass critical legislation to prevent the spread of HIV by “reckless” persons. Against this backdrop, she noted that when such individuals know before hand that a “stiff penalty is in place …they will think twice.” She too noted that the matter should be put up for discussion at a special select committee.