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Missouri Activists And Legislators Are Hopeful About Push To Modernize HIV Transmission Laws

From left, Chloe Owens and Kneeshe Parkinson joined Wednesday's program.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

As Chloe Owens looks toward the new year, she’s thinking about it from the perspective of an activist — and well aware of the challenges that come with 2020 being an election year.

“A lot of people in this field expect a lot of things not to get done,” Owens, a justice organizer with Empower Missouri, acknowledged. And yet she sees an exception to that pattern in the momentum surrounding a current bipartisan effort to modernize Missouri’s statutes relating to HIV transmission and criminalization.

In the Missouri House, Reps. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, and Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, have each pre-filed bills for 2020 that they see as addressing an important public health issue. At present, people living with HIV in Missouri can face consequences on par with a murder conviction for transmitting the disease. That’s even though HIV is no longer the killer that it was during the disease’s early days.

“We’re talking about laws that don’t consider intent [or] medical advancements,” Owens said.

For the thousands of Missourians living with HIV, including St. Louis-based activist Kneeshe Parkinson, the stakes are enormous. The case of former Lindenwood University student Michael Johnson, who was released this past summer from a Missouri prison after an appeals court described his 2015 trial as “fundamentally unfair,” is one example of the far-reaching implications.

“That could have been me,” said Parkinson, 42, who since being diagnosed in the late ’90s has become involved in the Positive Women’s Network, the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, committees connected to the Fast Track Cities Initiative — and given birth to a healthy, HIV-negative child.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Parkinson and Owens joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at this issue. The conversation included comments from Reps. Rehder and McCreery.

Listen to the discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.