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What role should criminal justice play in the fight against STIs?
  1. David Gurnham
  1. Correspondence to Dr David Gurnham, Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, School of Law, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK; david.gurnham{at}

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Can criminal justice make a positive contribution to the way states respond to sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? Sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 make it an offence punishable by imprisonment to inflict recklessly or cause intentionally any sort of grievous bodily harm. If particular STIs (such as herpes or HIV, the two infections to have attracted the attention of English criminal prosecutors to date) are harms to be taken at least as seriously as a broken leg then it makes sense to a criminal lawyer to treat both its intentional and ‘reckless’ transmission as a criminal offence.1 2 It comes, therefore, as something of a surprise to some lawyers that so much of the reaction amongst healthcare practitioners and public health policy-makers to criminalisation has been fiercely negative. It is beyond argument that criminal justice and public health have very different aims and admit of different measures of success, authority and proof. Whether these differences are so great as to be unbridgeable remains to be seen.

A fundamental point over which criminal justice and healthcare professionals disagree is whether punishing non-intentional transmission is ever right in principle. That wrongdoers do not get away unpunished and that the state has …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.