Screen Tests: Weeding Out the Unborn

As Prenatal Diagnosis Rises, Abortion Often Follows

LONDON, NOV. 15, 2003 ( The use of embryo screening to check the unborn babies of pregnant women for defects is ever more common. The purpose is not to provide corrective surgery or to help the family cope with eventual problems. Almost always the focus is on abortion.

Screening can take place in conjunction with in vitro fertilization, in which case pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is used so the “defective” embryos are not implanted. Other methods of prenatal testing exist too, whatever the method of conception.

A new method for detecting Down syndrome and other defects was recently introduced in Britain, the London daily Telegraph reported June 18. The technique, known as aneuploidy screening, was already in use in the United States and parts of Europe. The Telegraph described the procedure as “allowing doctors to weed out those with serious chromosome disorders.”

Using this new method, a British woman had had her unborn child screened, even though there was no family history of genetic disorders, BBC reported Aug. 4. Previously, only women with a family history of genetic disease could have embryos checked in this way, but this rule was dropped last year.

The pro-abortion bias of such screening was evident in a recent CNN program. In a commentary for National Review Online on Nov. 10, Dave Shiflett protested CNN’s portrayal of a new prenatal test that can detect the presence of Down syndrome. He noted that CNN’s Web site reported the primary benefit of this test is that it gives “mothers-to-be more peace of mind and more time to end a pregnancy.” CNN’s on-air medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta shared this approach, Shiflett noted.

Recent testimony showed that an alternative approach is possible, the Australian newspaper The Age reported Nov. 10. In the 1970s, Luisa and Luo Papaleo were at first shocked to learn that their daughter Stephanie had Down syndrome. The couple did their best to help their daughter and, instead of putting her in an institution, kept her in contact with other children.

Stephanie is now 27. “Articulate, motivated and well organized, she is a clear, lateral thinker with an impressive memory,” said the newspaper. The article noted that she sometimes wishes she’d not been born with that extra chromosome, but she adds, “I just don’t think about it. I love my life. I love who I am.”

Others who share Stephanie’s problem may never get the chance to say that. The United Kingdom government has pledged that by 2004 every pregnant woman will have the opportunity to have the test for Down syndrome, BBC reported Sept. 19. A BBC “Five Live Report” of Sept. 21 found some women are being pressured into abortion if their baby is found to have Down syndrome.

Women often find themselves on a “conveyor belt” they can’t get off, and are overwhelmed by a system that assumes they want to abort if abnormalities are found, commented Hilary Rose, a sociologist with the Open University, to BBC. “That doesn’t seem to me to be a healthy way to run an antenatal service,” she said.

The BBC program also recounted the experience of a couple whose unborn child was found to be suffering from exomphalos, which causes the abdominal organs to grow outside the body. While they were told that the baby could have corrective surgery after it was born, the couple felt that the hospital was pushing them toward an abortion. They refused to abort, and their son is now a healthy, happy 3-year-old.

Quest for perfection

Earlier, embryo tests were recommended for use in Germany, Reuters reported Jan. 23. The National Committee of Ethics recommended limited use of tests to screen in vitro fertilized embryos for genetic disorders, so that only healthy ones are implanted.

The decision divided the committee, with nine of the 24 members voting against the tests. One opponent, Social Democrat Member of Parliament Hans-Jochen Vogel, spoke out against the decision, saying that making the test available could mean couples opt for IVF in order to get the genetic screening, even if they are able to have babies normally.

In Canada, fertility clinics expect increased demand for screening despite federal restrictions, the Ottawa Citizen reported March 10. Such screening comes at a high cost. The newspaper reported that at the McGill Reproductive Center in Montreal, fees for PGD range from $1,500 to $3,000 Canadian ($1,142 to $2,285 U.S.). This is in addition to the $4,000-plus for IVF. The tests used can detect up to 100 genetic conditions.

Screening is also increasingly popular in the United States, the Los Angeles Times reported July 21. “I see this as a trend for the future, and I do see that in the future, every embryo [produced via IVF] will be tested,” said Dr. Harvey Stern, head of the Genetics & IVF Institute’s PGD program in Fairfax, Virginia.

At two of the nation’s largest centers for PGD, almost 3 in 4 of the procedures are for aneuploidy screening, largely for women older than 35 or those who have had repeated IVF failures or miscarriages, the Los Angeles Times said.

But the practice has also been the target of strong criticisms, and a number of countries have introduced restrictions on its use. “If you give people the idea that it’s perfectly OK — and doable — to pick out this, that and the other trait” in an embryo, “then you’re opening the door to shopping for babies as accessories to your life,” said Marcy Darnovsky, an analyst with the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, California.

The sharp rise on testing was recently criticized in Italy. According to the Nov. 3 edition of the Corriere della Sera, 20% of newborns have been subjected to amniocentesis, whereby a specimen of amniotic fluid is taken for analysis. This number is unnecessarily high, according to geneticist Bruno Dallapiccola.

The newspaper cited data from professional associations showing that the number of tests boomed by 42% in 2002, compared to levels only two years ago. Also worrying is that the test results rarely are accompanied by consultation with a specialist, who could advise on the gravity of the conditions revealed.

And it’s not just serious genetic defects that can lead to embryos being aborted. Deafness is now considered to be among the unwanted defects, according to a July 11 report by The Age. A couple from Melbourne, Australia, had their IVF embryos screened in order to guarantee a child with perfect hearing. The spouses each had one affected gene, though neither was deaf. A child of theirs would have a one-in-four chance of inheriting the affected gene from both parents and being deaf.

Their attempts to have a baby through IVF ultimately failed. But the International Genetics Congress being held in Melbourne was told that the screening was the world’s first reported case of an embryonic deafness test. The British Deaf Association said it opposed such screening. “Deaf people understand only too well the historical links between genetics and eugenics,” the group said in a statement.

Researchers have just published an analysis of the handicapped and mentally ill killed by the Nazi regime, the Associated Press reported Sept. 30. More than 200,000 of what the Nazis termed “worthless lives” were terminated. Modern science now takes it upon itself to eliminate such lives before they even have a chance to draw breath.

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