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Put to the Test

Activists say supporters of a bill that would force sexual offenders to take HIV tests are misinformed


‘Dangerous,” “misinformed,” “fear-mongering”—that is how Michael Kink, legislative counsel for Housing Works Inc., a service and advocacy group for those suffering from HIV, described a bill pending before the state Assembly that would require the HIV testing of accused sexual offenders at the victim’s request. Housing Works and a number of other groups across the state, including the National Organization for Women, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Planned Parenthood of New York City, all of which oppose the bill, said it does not take into consideration the realities of HIV testing.

“What the supporters of the bill and the author of the bill say they want to do is help survivors of sexual assault protect themselves from possible HIV infection,” said Kink. “Strangely enough, that is the exact goal of the opponents of the bill.”

Kink said the opponents of the bill, such as himself and members of the HIV community, simply have a better understanding of the science surrounding the virus than those who are supporting the bill.

Someone infected with the HIV virus can take up to three months to produce antibodies that are needed to register a positive test for the virus. During this time period before someone can test positive, the HIV virus is more prevalent in the body than almost any other time during infection. Kink said the worry is that victims might be wrongly dissuaded by a negative test from seeking emergency post-exposure prophylaxis treatment, which can stop early HIV infection, when the risk of infection could still exist.

Furthermore, Kink pointed out, innocent people may be subjected to HIV tests in cases where police identify the wrong person as the perpetrator. And the root of the bill, Kink said, is simply fear. He further insisted that the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, Nettie Mayersohn (D-Queens), is arguing for the bill without the facts. “She’s got her science wrong; she has got her facts wrong,” he said. “The truth is it is all about politics. It’s about mining the vein of HIV stigma for political gain. They are using a blunt instrument to somehow stand up against HIV-positive rapists when the actual operation of the bill would have strong potential to hurt survivors.”

On Monday, about 40 Housing Works mem bers led a dem onstration at the Capitol to target Gov. Eliot Spit zer, who has been an open, vocal supporter of the bill. Later in the day, at a press conference, Spitzer brusquely dismissed the protest and noted his continued support.

Diana Scholl of Housing Works, who attended the protest, said she understands on the surface why there is support for the bill, but hopes politicians will look deeper into what they are supporting and not act on fear alone.

“The fact is you are innocent until proven guilty,” she said. “They are not testing people who are convicted of rape; [they are testing] people accused of rape. This is a public-health issue, in that we have seen over the years when you make a law like this you can stigmatize the HIV-positive, and as a result less people will be tested.”

Scholl insisted that the law will only further stigmatize those with HIV, associate them with rapists, and discourage those in need of HIV testing from seeking it out.

“It’s a fear-mongering bill,” she said. “You know the headlines certain newspapers will run, ‘HIV Positive? Rapist?’ No one in their right mind wants someone with HIV to be spreading this disease, but we are going about this the wrong way.”

While the bill already has passed the Senate and currently is pending before the Assembly, with Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver behind it, activists hope that they may still have time to dissuade enough members of the Assembly, or at least force them to think about their actions, long enough to put off a vote until next year.

—David King

What a Week

How Many People Have to Die?

After four years and more than 400,000 dead in Sudan, the United Nations is finally being allowed to send in military support. Sudanese officials met with the Security Council in Khartoum Sunday and agreed to allow nearly 20,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops into Darfur, the western region of the country that has been terrorized by the militant Janjaweed forces. The new influx of U.N. troops would join the meager 7,000 African Union troops already trying to curb the genocide. Estimates vary, but roughly a half million people have perished under the horrific conditions; nearly 2.5 million Darfur residents have been displaced.

The Appeals Court’s Breast Decision

When the New York City Police Department arrested and held Jill Coccaro in custody for 12 hours in 2005 for walking around topless, they violated her civil rights, based on a 1992 state appeals court decision. Women, the court said, have the same right as men to walk around shirtless. This week Coccaro, who is now known as Phoenix Feeley, settled her lawsuit against the city for $29,000.

Surgeon General (Nominee) Warning

President George W. Bush is catching heat in the Senate for his controversial surgeon-general nominee, Dr. James Holsinger. Holsinger has crusaded for years against homosexuality, claiming that it’s “unnatural and dangerous.” In 2000, he helped create the Hope Springs Community Church that alleges it can ‘cure’ homosexuals. Gay-rights groups have been crying out for senators to reject this confirmation, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has voiced his reservations “about nominating someone who would inject his own anti-gay ideology into critical decisions about the health and well-being of our nation.”

Does This Knighthood Come With Armor?

A Pakistani government minister announced this week that Britain’s knighting of author Salman Rushdie (who was forced into hiding after his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses led to a death order issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini) might justify suicide attacks by Muslims against the British. “If somebody has to attack by strapping bombs to his body to protect the honor of the Prophet, then it is justified,” said Pakistani religious affairs minister Ijaz-ul-Haq.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Save Our Hospital

In the past two weeks it has became more likely that supporters of Bellevue Woman’s Hospital will get their wish and see their hospital spared from the list of closings slated by the Berger Commission Report. With a bill already passed in the Senate to prevent the hospital’s closure, Bellevue’s fate is now in the hands of the Assembly. On Tuesday, to further spread the message, hospital supporters put its name in lights above the Palace Theatre.



Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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