Monday, July 10, 2006

Goa Church for Voluntary HIV Testing

Church in Goa Advocates Informed Consent in HIV Testing

In view of the proposed legislation of the Goa State Government to make HIV testing mandatory before marriage, the Church in Goa, considering the risk of unintentional injury, hopes rather that the need for intensive marriage preparation courses and adequate professional counselling leading to voluntary HIV testing by couples be stressed. The statement issued by the Goan Archdiocesan Council for Social Justice and Peace follows.

The alarming growth rate of new HIV infections, especially in young people, has moved the Government of Goa to propose the introduction of a legislation that will make premarital testing for HIV mandatory.

The Catholic Church, ever conscious of her responsibility towards society, has consistently shown special concern for those who suffer and are in distress, and has sided with those denied their human rights and dignity, accompanying them in their struggles to secure justice.

This social attitude is clearly expressed in the opening sentence of The Church in the Modern World, a document released by the Second Vatican Council, which reads: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ as well.”

The Church in India is deeply concerned about the increasing rate of HIV infection in the country and she has been intensely mobilizing her resources to curb its further spread, joining hands with like-minded groups countrywide. Indeed, as a fruit of a serious reflection on this issue over the past few years, she has come out with an official “HIV/AIDS Policy of the Catholic Church in India,” last year. This document clearly states that the Church’s approach to the problem is guided by an all-rounded view of the human person as someone created in the image of God and endowed with a God-given dignity and inalienable human rights.

In this context, the Church stands firm in her belief that the traditional teaching of sexual abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage are the keys to the control of HIV infection. At the same time, she acknowledges that human failing and resultant sexual transgressions as well as other modes of transmission of the virus often end in the infection of innocent, unknowing and unsuspecting people. She is therefore committed to provide prevention education to all, especially the youth and the vulnerable, so that they can make informed, responsible and meaningful choices that will protect them from being infected with HIV.

With this in mind, and profoundly anguished at the threatening spread of HIV infection in our State, the Church in Goa has been taking various measures for an extensive education of the society at large, beginning with school and college students. She has established shelters for HIV patients and, most importantly, has engaged herself, through one of her Centres, in intensive counselling of couples preparing to get married. The latter exercise has borne fruit in many of these counselled couples voluntarily opting for HIV testing, as part of their marriage preparation.

Now, in view of the proposed legislation of the State Government to make HIV testing mandatory before marriage -- and keeping in mind that the best intended actions can often carry the risk of unintentional injury that negates and makes such actions ineffective -- the Church in Goa has consulted a number of individuals working with different organizations as well as experts in Medicine, Morals, Law and Sociology, to analyze the various implications and consequences, if such legislation comes in force.

In the process of these wide-ranging consultations, some important points emerged, which call into question the proposed legislation and merit a serious consideration by all. Chief among them are:
a) The unpredictability and false security arising from a negative test conducted during the window period;
b) The extensive infrastructural set-up required at various levels (professionalism in counselling, testing and care of those found positive) and the enormous expenditures involved;
c) The prevailing tendency towards corruption in official circles, making false testing and certification a high probability;
d) The difficulty in maintaining confidentiality in case of a positive detection.
The UNAIDS policy statement on HIV Testing strongly recommends that voluntariness of testing must remain at the heart of all HIV policies and programmes, both to comply with human rights principles and to ensure sustained public health benefits. The same policy is incorporated in the guidelines of NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) which state that HIV testing should only be voluntary, with pre- and post-test counselling.

Respecting the conscience and the freedom that every person has, the Church in Goa advocates the principle of informed consent and voluntary testing with counselling support, while she rejects any form of unethical testing practices that offend the dignity of the concerned individuals. She hopes, therefore, that any proposed legislation in this regard will rather stress the need for intensive preparation courses before marriage and adequate professional counselling that will in turn lead to Voluntary HIV Testing by the couple preparing for marriage. Such measures, she believes, should definitely help in the promotion of a healthy and a compassionate society, wherein the true value and dignity of the human person is safeguarded and genuinely respected.

Archbishop’s House, Panjim, Goa, July 8, 2005.

Issued by the Council for Social Justice and Peace
(Archdiocese of Goa and Daman)

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