'Lock this whore up’: public health legislation & other ‘risks’ to public safety by Alexander McClelland

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Last month I presented at the Canadian Law and Society Association annual mid-winter meeting held in Montreal. For the presentation, I addressed what some perceive as an over-reliance on the criminal law to address the HIV non-disclosure in Canada. There have been calls from social scientists and activists to advance the use of public health legislation, regarded as a more ‘benevolent’ instrument of the state to manage people who have not told their HIV-positive status to sex partners. Using examples from two HIV non-disclosure cases in Ontario, I argued that public health legislation is one component of a diverse assemblage of technological formations of legal governance – comprised of public health law and criminal law, as well as civil law and other extra-legal practices – which have come to order the lives of certain classified people with HIV.

Examining the use of public health orders under Section 22 of the Ontario Health Promotion and Protection Act (HPPA), I discussed that these orders act as the first point of entry into a broader heterogeneous assemblage of legal actors, institutions, mechanisms and practices that act in concert to enable forms of surveillance and governance, constituting something altogether different than the stated benevolent intentions of public health. In the discussion I argued furthermore that public health legislation cannot be understood as easily divorced from this assemblage, or understood as a form of jurisprudence that can be applied in a silo. My analysis is grounded in a detailed examination of how public health orders are taken up in media reports, as evidence to inform court judgements, and in the context of psychiatric testimony by experts to classify ‘offenders’ as future risks to ‘public safety’. With a critical inquiry attuned to the social and historical constitution of the legal, I also discussed how these orders are underpinned by logic of risk mitigation, a logic aimed to protect the ‘public’ through governing the biologically and juridically marked viral underclass: the person with HIV who has come to be known as ‘unwilling’ or ‘unable’ to take the precautions to protect others from HIV transmission.