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Premarital blood testing bill not finalised due to senators’ concerns

Premarital blood testing bill not finalised due to senators’ concerns

ISLAMABAD: A joint Senate committee meeting on Wednesday failed to finalise a bill on premarital blood testing after the Council of Islamic Ideology argued that the test should be voluntary and one of the chairmen, Hafiz Hamdullah, said it was insulting to direct a couple to be tested before marriage.

The heads of the National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) and the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), Justice Ali Nawaz Chohan and Khawar Mumtaz respectively, supported the bill, but failed to convince committee members to make further improvements in the draft.

The committee, in the end, directed the ministries of law and justice, human rights, religious affairs and national health services to submit a consensus draft of The Premarital Blood Screening (Family Laws Amendment) Bill 2016 within three weeks.

The bill was tabled by PML-N Senator Chaudhry Tanvir in July this year. It states that, because thalassaemia is one of the greatest health challenges in the city it should be made mandatory for the couple to be tested prior to their wedding in order to eradicate the disease in the country.

If two thalassaemia carriers have children, the child could be born with thalassaemia major, which causes the body to stop making red blood cells. Patients need regular blood transfusions, and the only cure is a bone marrow transplant, which is not only expensive but also requires a donor. A thalassaemia patient requires medication worth thousands of rupees, and blood transfusions once or twice a month. The disease can be detected by a simple blood test.

Wednesday’s joint meeting of the Senate standing committees on law and justice and religious affairs and interfaith harmony was held so members could consider the draft and finalise it after removing all their respective concerns. The meeting was chaired by Mohammad Javed Abbasi and Mr Hamdullah.

In response to the CII’s recommendation that the test be made voluntary, Justice Chohan attempted to persuade members of the committee on the bill’s provisions using examples from Islam and from Islamic countries.

“Saudi Arabia has already declared premarital blood screening mandatory and [calls] it a step towards a healthy nation. Turkey has also done legislation, which seems to be influenced by Saudi Arabia, to curb diseases such as thalassaemia, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Imam Malik has also suggested making good laws,” Mr Chohan said.

Meanwhile, Ms Mumtaz of the NCSW supported the law but suggested the inclusion of tests to detect HIV and hepatitis.

She added: “As the quality of the labs is poor, legislation should be done to ensure quality testing. A subsidised service should be provided and there should be a special section on medical tests in the [marriage certificate].”

The mover of the bill, Mr Tanvir, said the inclusion of other tests would complicate the bill, as people do not want to talk about HIV.

A representative from the Ministry of Human Rights said that since there is a lack of awareness about thalassaemia, voluntary tests should be recommended.

Although it was expected that the health ministry would support the bill, the national coordinator for the Safe Blood Transfusion Programme, Dr Hasan Abbas Zaheer said public sector hospitals are already over-burdened, and if the bill is approved, hospitals will not have the capacity to serve more people.

He claimed that thalassaemia is “limited to some families in Pakistan”, arguing that “the focus should be on those families instead of the whole population”. “Moreover, the World Health Organisation does not support mandatory health tests,” he added.

A representative from the religious affairs ministry noted that religious minorities should be taken on board to determine if they object to the bill’s provisions. Senators from minority communities, Dr Ashok Kumar and Gian Chand expressed support for the bill, and Dr Kumar said the bill has nothing to do with religious and should be taken as a health bill. Gian Chand also supported the inclusion of HIV and hepatitis testing in the bill.

However, Mr Hamdullah claimed the bill should not be passed in a hurry due to the differences in opinion.

“In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, those tests will be taken as an insult, so it is not wise to pass the bill at once,” he claimed.

Mr Hamdullah also read out a CII recommendation from 2010, which called for the inclusion of a column in the marriage certificate about thalassaemia based on voluntary testing, and gave people the choice to continue with a marriage even if they tested positive for thalassaemia minor.

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2016

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