Summersgill: pre-marital blood test outdated
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Summersgill: pre-marital blood test outdated

Testimony by Bob Summersgill on
The Safe Marriage Amendment Act of 2007, B17-0533
February 14, 2008
Before the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary

Good morning Chairman Mendelson. I am Bob Summersgill, a resident of Ward 3.

The Safe Marriage Amendment Act of 2007, B17-0533, has a few shortcomings but represents an opportunity to correct some deficiencies in the existing code and advance Home-Rule.

The bill has two main purposes: adding HIV screening to the pre-marital syphilis testing and encouraging pre-marital counseling.

I appreciate the move for pre-marital counseling. It is likely to be useful, but even if it is unwanted, there would still be the option of getting a marriage license without it. Therefore, it is an incentive without being a barrier.

The pre-marital blood test, while well-intentioned, is based on a naïve idea that most people do not have sex before marriage or extra-marital affairs afterwards. While this may have been a sensible idea a century ago when syphilis was endemic and untreatable, it no longer makes sense as a public health measure.

Almost all states have abandoned testing for syphilis. Only Connecticut , Georgia , Mississippi , and Oklahoma still require a pre-marital syphilis test.

Most states have repealed their blood test requirements because they are not cost-effective. Studies in the past several decades have found that the tests identify relatively few infections.

A 1979 California study found 35-cases of syphilis out of 300,000 people tested, at a cost of $240,000 per detected infection. Massachusetts repealed their pre-marital blood test in 2005 finding that almost no infections were found.

Before D.C. adds to the pre-marital blood tests, we need to find out if the tests are useful. It is likely that the tests are not an efficient means of preventing syphilis or HIV transmission, and the money spent is best used for other prevention programs.

The bill also has a short coming in not including domestic partners in either proposal. If pre-marital counseling and/or blood tests are to be adopted for marriage, they should apply equally to domestic partners. The language of the bill should also be made gender-neutral to accommodate domestic partnerships.

This bill is a good opportunity to repeal a discriminatory section of the marriage code. § 46-403(3) makes illegal “[a]ny marriage either of the parties to which shall be incapable, from physical causes, of entering into the married state”. This is on its face discriminatory against people with particular disabilities and ailments. This too is based on the naïve idea that couples would not have engaged in sex prior to marriage, and it provides a simple means to reverse the marriage in the case of non-performance on the honeymoon. It is time for D.C. to update the law and repeal this section.

This is also be a good time for the District to claim its own authority in issuing marriage licenses. Currently, licenses are issued by the Clerk of the Superior Court (D.C. Code § 46-410, 46-411, 46-412, 46-413, 46-414) which is operated outside of D.C.’s control. Judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. One hundred percent of the Court’s funding comes from the federal budget. D.C. should begin issuing marriage licenses under its own authority and control, as a small step towards greater Home-Rule. This authority might be granted to the Office of Vital Statistics or the Secretary of the District of Columbia .

Further, the Mayor, Secretary of the District of Columbia , Council Chairman, or other officials should be authorized to perform those marriages. Currently, only religious leaders, Judges, and Clerks of the Court may officiate at a marriage ceremony (§ 46-406).

Thank you.

I am available to answer any questions that you may have.

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