The Prenatal Testing Sham
On this year’s World Down Syndrome Day, Mark Leach discusses the unacknowledged effects of prenatal testing.
Each year, March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD). The date 3/21 was chosen as a representation of the genetic cause of the condition, a triplicate of the 21st chromosome. WDSD seeks to raise awareness of a genetic condition that may very well diminish to the point of disappearing. This is due to the prenatal testing sham.
Since the beginning of the year, headlines have touted advancements in prenatal testing. Laboratories are promising a prenatal diagnostic test for Down syndrome based solely on a blood sample from the expectant mother. This would be an improvement over current diagnostic testing, which involves the insertion of a needle into the womb and a risk of miscarriage. The promised new testing is on the verge of realization as soon as next year.
This new testing is being justified for its ability to provide mothers with information about their pregnancies more safely and earlier than ever. News reports relay how the new testing will save babies, eliminating the risk of miscarriage inherent in current diagnostic testing and promoting healthy births. Once available, it is expected that the testing will have almost universal uptake. Indeed, the test developers are banking on this–literally, in the case of Sequenom, a publicly traded company whose stock price is rebounding after plummeting from earlier, false reports about its testing.
But what is less reported in the coverage on the new testing is its likely impact. Already, existing prenatal testing is followed by high termination rates, exceeding 70 percent in California, and 90 percent in England and Europe. At this high percentage, it is more accurate to call it an “elimination rate.” With each advance in prenatal testing, the next generation of children born with Down syndrome is smaller, so much so that there are close to 50 percent fewer children born with Down syndrome than if all were carried to term.
Some have argued that this impact is modern-day eugenics. Certainly the halving of future generations, with abortions being performed purely because of the genetic makeup of the child, sounds of eugenics. But the test developers, and many others, are quick to point out that the testing itself is purely informative. And many mothers of children with Down syndrome will say the same thing, expressing appreciation for having known their child’s condition prenatally so that they could prepare, on their terms, for how to share the news and for delivering at a hospital with the appropriate neonatal services. Furthermore, professional medical associations, noted bioethicists, and many courts in this nation have found an obligation that prenatal testing be offered, out of respect for the mother’s autonomy and her right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy.
This is the medical, ethical, legal, and industry line: the availability of prenatal testing for Down syndrome is required out of respect for a woman’s right to choose. This, too, is a sham.