On Jan. 28, the Massachusetts law requiring couples to take a premarital test for syphilis and rubella was repealed. The bill ending the requirement was passed by the state Legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Mitt Romney, adding Massachusetts to the growing number of states that have abolished all such requirements.
The push for premarital blood tests began around World War II, when syphilis was more of a public health concern, and there was no effective treatment for it. "Because of war, people were getting called up and married quickly. There was a concern people may be going off to war with syphilis and not be able to fight," said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state Department of Public Health's director of communicable disease control. "There was also the underlying presumption that people didn't have sex until they got married, which has never been true," he added. Massachusetts enacted the law in 1943.
Health officials say so few syphilis cases are detected among engaged couples that the test is outdated and an economic burden to the state and to couples. Couples spent $2 million on blood tests last year, but only a handful of syphilis cases were discovered. Another argument for dropping the test requirement is that most people are now vaccinated against rubella.
Around 100 syphilis cases were recorded last year in Massachusetts, largely among gay couples. But health officials maintain the fact that same-sex couples can now marry in the state is no reason to revive the testing requirement.
According to DeMaria, there is nothing intrinsic about getting married that makes it an opportune time to test for STDs. Michael McWilliams, a Boston doctor who is getting married in May, agrees. "You're picking out a very low risk population to screen because generally you are testing people in monogamous relationships," said McWilliams.