This qualitative cross-sectional survey, undertaken in the antenatal booking clinics of a hospital in central London, explores pregnant women’s responses to routine HIV testing, examines their reasons for declining or accepting the test, and assesses how far their responses fulfil standard criteria for informed consent. Of the 32 women interviewed, only 10 participants were prepared for HIV testing at their booking interview. None of the women viewed themselves as being particularly at risk for HIV infection. The minority (n = 6) of the participants who declined testing differed from those who accepted, by interpreting test acceptance as risky behaviour, privileging the negative outcomes of HIV positivity and expressing an inability to cope with these, should they occur. Troublingly, only a minority of women (n = 9) had a broad understanding of the rationale for the test, and none fulfilled the standard criteria for informed consent. This study suggests that, although routine screening combined with professional recommendation may be successful in increasing uptake, this may be at the cost of eroding informed consent. Protecting third parties (notably fetuses) from a preventable disease may outweigh the moral duty of respecting autonomy, enshrined in Western bioethical tradition. Nevertheless, such a policy should be made transparent, debated in the public domain and negotiated with women seeking antenatal care.
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