Testing AIDS Policy


The Illinois legislature will likely repeal a law requiring premarital testing for the HIV virus. This move indicates a shift by state lawmakers toward cheaper and less oppressive methods of dealing with AIDS. Louisiana, the only other state to require premarital HIV testing, repealed its law last year.

Illinois ordered premarital testing in 1987 despite the protests of the State Health Department and AIDS specialists. The law has forced the testing of 160,000 marriage applicants, identifying only 23 cases of HIV infection—and officials suspect that half of those may be false positives. The total cost for Illinois couples is at least $5.6 million, or about $240,000 to find a single infection.

"The problem is that those in the high risk groups [I.V. drug users and the gay population] aren't likely to be among those applying for marriage licenses," says Mona Rowe, codirector of George Washington University's AIDS Policy Center.

The law has also had unforeseen side effects. About 20,000 Illinois couples have fled to neighboring states to avoid the delay and cost ($35–$125) of the test. Others say they put off marriage altogether. Marriage license applications fell 22 percent in 1988, reversing the upward trend of recent years. (See "Chicken Little with a Hypodermic," Nov. 1988.)

Further, the false positives may have led some panicked couples to break off engagements or abort pregnancies. "There has been much personal hardship and inconvenience," says Bernard Turnock, the state's public health director. "Our worst fears have come true with this requirement."

"Enough is enough," says Jesse White, chairman of the Illinois House Human Services Committee. "We had a chance to test this measure. It's been an embarrassing experience. Now it's time to put this matter to rest." Turnock will likely recommend replacing the law with one mandating AIDS education for marriage-license applicants.

The education approach—usually in the form of an informative and entertaining pamphlet—seems to be catching on. California, Indiana, West Virginia, Georgia, and Rhode Island have mandatory premarital education and offer optional testing. Hawaii, Texas, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Idaho just require the education.

"The Illinois experience goes far beyond premarital testing," says Thomas D. Stoddard, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which acts on behalf of gays' civil rights. "It relates to coercive action by states and mandatory testing. By and large, the country has rejected mandatory testing whether it be marital or employment."