Pre-Natal Testing: Promise or Peril?

by Christopher White, Ramsey Institute Project Director on October 8, 2013

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Today’s New York Times contains an article promoting new “Breakthroughs in Prenatal Screening.” The article presents the following scenario:

More than 30 years ago, a 37-year-old friend of mine with an unplanned fourth pregnancy was told by her obstetrician that an amniocentesis was “too dangerous” and could cause a miscarriage. She ultimately bore a child severely affected by Down syndrome, which could have been detected with the test.

Today, my friend’s story would have a different trajectory. She would have a series of screening tests, and if the results suggested a high risk of Down syndrome, then an amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (C.V.S.) to make the diagnosis. She’d be given the option to abort the pregnancy.

In the future, a woman who decides to continue a Down syndrome pregnancy may also be offered prenatal treatment to temper the developmental harm to the fetus.

This article aims to downplay the likelihood that such testing will lead to abortion. In fact, later in the article the author notes that this new testing offers “The prospect of treating a Down syndrome fetus before birth to minimize the disorder’s neurological effects.”

While we can applaud the accomplishment and the promise that such technology offers—particularly the hope of treating the child during the fetal stages of development—we must be equally adamant that such technology should never be used to encourage the ending of a life deemed “less fit” or “disordered.” There are perils of prenatal testing that must be discussed, lest we slip into a mentality of justifying it in order to help couples conceive of their perfect child.

These perils include the possibility of sex selective abortion (all too common in places like China and India, but increasingly popular in the U.S.), the fact that none of these tests are entirely accurate, and the overall shift that may occur in both our thinking and our treatment of the disabled.

Places like Denmark have already stated that they aim to be Down Syndrome Free by 2030. In the U.S., we haven’t been so bold to state such things publicly, but our practice reveals that by some estimates we’re aborting 90% of children with Down syndrome. It’s hard not to think that pre-natal testing isn’t contributing to this shameful practice.

Let’s not be deceived by the language of “breakthrough” and the promise of technology to right all of our wrongs.

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