Feature

Prenatal testing: Too much information?

A breakthrough in genetic testing will make it possible to screen unborn babies for 3,000 genetic disorders.

We’re about to enter a brave new world of prenatal testing, said Rosie Mestel in the Los Angeles Times. Using only a blood sample from the mother and a swab of the father’s saliva, researchers at the University of Washington have for the first time mapped an 18-week-old fetus’s entire genetic blueprint. The procedure—which uses parents’ genetic information to identify bits of fetal DNA in the mother’s blood—is not yet commercially available. But once perfected, it could be used to develop a single test to screen unborn babies for 3,000 genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs. This breakthrough “could not come at a better time,” said Roger Highfield in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). “As the average maternal age has increased over the past few decades, so has the risk of birth defects.” Currently, doctors can test for genetic defects only by using invasive methods like amniocentesis, which raise the risk of miscarriage. 

But genetic testing this detailed creates a grave risk of its own, said Wesley Smith in NationalReview.com. Will science now “accelerate the ongoing search and destroy mission” against all “defective” children? Based on current trends, this is a real danger. “We increasingly feel entitled not only to have a baby, but to have a baby of the kind and nature we want.” Already, 90 percent of unborn babies shown to have such genetic conditions as Down syndrome and dwarfism are aborted. Some perfection-seeking parents may use the new test for even more superficial reasons, said Kristan Hawkins in FoxNews.com. They may decide to abort if tests show that the potential offspring lacks its father’s athletic prowess or its mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes. “The justifications for these genetically discriminatory abortions will be limitless.”

Nonetheless, said William Saletan in Slate.com, the availability of these tests is inevitable. Polls show that most Americans support legal abortion as an option when prenatal tests show a serious physical or mental impairment. Look what happened to GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum when he “criticized prenatal testing as a gateway to abortion.” By a 60–30 margin, respondents to a National Journal poll disagreed, and said insurers should be required to pay for genetic testing. Pro-lifers like Santorum can bemoan such testing, but insisting that parents be denied information about their fetuses is a“politically untenable position.” Like it or not, much more sophisticated prenatal testing is coming, and it “will almost certainly increase the abortion rate.” 

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