Gay marriage ban linked to HIV infection rates

EMORY (US)—A rise in the rate of HIV infection can be linked to a ban on same-sex marriage, a new study by two Emory University economists finds.

In the first study of the impact of social tolerance levels toward gays in the United States on the HIV transmission rate, the researchers estimate that a constitutional ban on gay marriage raises the rate by four cases per 100,000 people.

The economists’ work is particularly relevant since recent evidence suggests the HIV incidence rate in the United States is on the rise again. About 1.2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS and about there are about 40,000 new infections every year in the 33 states with confidential name-based reporting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We found the effects of tolerance for gays on HIV to be statistically significant and robust,” says Hugo Mialon, assistant professor of economics.

“Laws on gay marriage are in flux and under debate,” adds Andrew Francis, also an assistant professor of economics, citing the recent decision by the California Supreme Court to uphold a ban on same-sex marriage. “It’s a hot issue, and we are hoping that policymakers will take our findings into account.”

The study uses data from the General Social Survey, which has tracked the attitudes of Americans during the past four decades. The economists calculated that a rise in tolerance from the 1970s to the 1990s reduced HIV cases by one per 100,000 people, and that laws against same-sex marriage boosted cases by 4 per 100,000.

“Intolerance is deadly,” Mialon says. “Bans on gay marriage codify intolerance, causing more gay people to shift to underground sexual behaviors that carry more risk.”

An analysis of the optimal penalty for sexually transmitting HIV written by Francis and Mialon and published in March 2008, has been named the outstanding paper of the year by the editors of the American Law and Economics Review.

The two researchers developed a model for sexual behavior, which demonstrates that laws in some states regarding the sexual transmission of HIV are generally inefficient at slowing the spread of the disease.

In Georgia, for instance, failing to inform a partner that you are HIV positive prior to having sex is a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The same penalty can apply even if the person who is HIV positive uses precautions such as a condom during sex, and even if the sexual partner does not contract HIV. The law does not apply, however, to people who do not know that they are HIV positive and transmit the virus.

“These laws can backfire because they may inhibit people at the margins from getting tested, or to take more precautions when having sex,” Francis says.

The researchers argues that under the optimal law, an individual should only be punished for transmission of HIV—not exposure without transmission—and should be punished equally for knowing and unknowing transmission. The optimal penalty for those found guilty of the crime should be one to-two years in prison.

This policy would reduce court costs and would not discourage people from getting tested, they conclude.

“The economic theory of behavior assumes that people are doing the best they can under the particular constraints that they are under,” Mialon explains. “It’s powerful, because by applying this theory you can predict the outcome of any policy—whether it’s economic, social, or legal.”

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