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The ethics of anonymised HIV testing of pregnant women: a reappraisal
  1. Anthony J Pinching
  1. St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, London

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    Dr de Zulueta articulates some important and commonly held concerns about the anonymised screening programme for HIV in pregnant women, which is one of a number of such programmes that are current. However, in my view, many of these concerns reflect a failure to understand two key distinctions.

    In both these regards, there is a danger of putting up a “straw man” for challenge. In this commentary, I wish to pick up some of these issues to help to resolve the apparent ethical tensions that Dr de Zulueta has set out.

    Firstly, the unlinked (anonymised) seroprevalence surveillance (screening) programmes, including that on pregnant women, comprise research studies that are designed to inform policy and practice, as well as individual decision making. They are not screening for the purpose of clinical care. The anonymisation is a procedural research tool, which enables the studies to be done in a way that does not undermine consent or individual autonomy. The ethical standards and duties expected of professionals are thus, in this specific regard, those that relate to the conduct of clinical research. That research is evidently designed to improve the quality of clinical care as a result of the information and insight gained. The duty of care is to apply the results of properly conducted and valid research in order to improve clinical practice on behalf of the individuals receiving care, in this case the mother and unborn child. The research conducted, in this case by a particular form of screening procedure, is not the same as a screening procedure done for clinical purposes to identify individuals who could benefit from an intervention. The ethical debate must therefore focus on the purpose in applying the procedure, not on the procedure itself, regardless of intent.

    Secondly, it is vital to distinguish, in debating such …

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    • Anthony J Pinching is Louis Freedman Professor of Immunology and Fellow, Department of Human Science and Medical Ethics, St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary & Westfield College, West Smithfield, London EC1A 7BE

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