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This paper considers the ethics of routine antenatal HIV testing and the role of informed consent within such a policy in order to decide how we should proceed in this area—a decision that ultimately rests on the relative importance we give to public health goals on the one hand and respect for individual autonomy on the other.
A recent illuminating qualitative study by Zulueta and Boulton1 explores the practicalities of informed consent in routine antenatal HIV testing. Its results support what I have argued1 is inevitable with routine testing policies of this kind: that routine antenatal testing regimes are incompatible with requirements for informed consent. It has become clear that intervention could reduce the risk of transmitting HIV from mother to child from 15–20%2 to around 8%,3 or possibly as low as 2%.4,5 The evidence of this possibility produced a general trend towards introducing routine antenatal HIV screening in developed countries worldwide.6,7,8,9,10 The aim was to dramatically reduce the rate of HIV transmission from mother to child by encouraging universal antenatal HIV testing. The UK has been no exception, and in 1999 the government instructed health authorities to implement a policy of offering and recommending an HIV test to all pregnant women.11
This UK antenatal screening policy and others like it, although well-meaning, are problematic in their formulation. In order to reflect contemporary ethical and legal practice, such policies attempt to marry the public health aims of maximising uptake of testing with a commitment to respect the choices of patients by requiring informed consent before they participate in screening. Thus, in the case of UK policy, health professionals are instructed to recommend the HIV test to all pregnant women in order to achieve the target of a 90% …
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