Help for rape victims, or violation of defendants' rights?

Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney pitches a complicated proposal to help survivors find out if their attackers are infected with HIV.

Published January 6, 2006 7:51PM (EST)

Flip-flopping pro-lifer and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney courted controversy again this week when he said rape suspects should undergo mandatory HIV testing.

Not surprisingly, civil rights lawyers and AIDS activists aren't thrilled about the idea, saying that forced testing of citizens who have not been found guilty of a crime would violate the defendants' constitutional rights. And although Romney's proposal would require the state's Victims Assistance Office to draft a plan to keep defendants' HIV status confidential, it's understandable that the defendants might worry that their information would be leaked.

Still, we're glad to see Romney advocating for rape survivors (especially since he initially opposed requiring hospitals to make Plan B available to them). In a statement on Thursday, the governor made the good point that "after such a devastating attack, they at least deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing whether or not they are at an increased health risk."

And in addition to providing that peace of mind, knowing the HIV status of their assailants would also help survivors decide whether to take the monthlong course of anti-AIDS drugs that can help prevent HIV transmission. Because the three-drug cocktail has some yucky side effects, including vomiting and diarrhea, knowing an assailant's status might help motivate survivors to follow through with preventative measures.

Of course, that assumes that police correctly identify the assailant and have him or her in custody during the 72-hour window in which survivors would need to start taking the drugs. That's a lot to assume, and opponents of the bill argue that it's impractical.

We'll be watching to see how the proposed legislation plays out.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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