Outgoing Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill Friday that requires that all pregnant women in California be offered an HIV test.
The bill, written by Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont), was widely backed by an array of health advocates, who say the testing program will lead to fewer infections of newborns by women with HIV.
Under the new law, all pregnant women will be asked to take an HIV test as part of a prenatal blood test that also determines blood type and checks for hepatitis B. A woman faces no penalty if she declines to take the test.
In the past, it has largely been up to individual doctors to offer an HIV test.
Out of concern that babies were still being born with HIV, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation in April that states begin testing all pregnant women.
Medications can almost certainly prevent an HIV-positive woman from passing the virus to her fetus. Medication and voluntary testing have helped reduce the number of babies born with HIV in the United States from about 1,760 in 1991 to 280 in 2000, according to the CDC.
“I think this sends a clear message to women about the importance of HIV testing during prenatal care,” said Lisa Gardiner, a legislative aide to Dutra. “I think that the way the tests are currently offered sends a conflicting message -- it’s easy for a woman to get the impression that an HIV test is not very important.”
Gov. Davis vetoed a similar bill last year, citing concerns that women would perceive the test as mandatory and, as a result, shy away from getting health care while pregnant.
The new bill allows for a counseling session in which women are told why the test is important.
“When it comes to a woman’s health, especially a pregnant woman’s health, laws like this are beneficial,” said Russ Lopez, a spokesman for Davis. “You have a child that’s truly at the mercy of the parents. Anything that we can do that’s proactive and helps women learn about their status and avoid any other damaging behavior is good.”
The bill’s most notable critic has been the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Michael Weinstein, the group’s president, said the bill doesn’t go far enough because testing is still voluntary, whereas tests for such diseases as syphilis and hepatitis are mandatory.
“If we think that saving babies from getting infected with HIV is the most important thing, we should have had a bill that made it the same as testing the woman for syphilis,” Weinstein said. “And this bill is not that.”