Genetic testing to detect Down’s syndrome may reduce miscarriage risk but is it ethical?

At the moment in the UK, pregnant women are offered screening at 10-14 weeks to detect whether there is an elevated risk of Down’s syndrome and a couple of other chromosomal conditions. This screening is based on an ultrasound and blood test and offers no risk of damage to the unborn foetus.


If an elevated risk of one of the conditions is detected, an amniocentesis can be performed to investigate the genetic makeup of the embryo more precisely. This carries a small risk of miscarriage – around 1%.

For more on NHS screening, click [here].


An alternative genetic screening method has been developed that now eliminates this 1 in 100 risk. It sounds like a simple choice – clearly having a test that has no risk to the embryo must be preferable – all other things considered.


Of the three conditions detected, the rarer two (Edward’s and Patau’s syndromes) usually result in babies that die before or shortly after birth. However, Down’s syndrome is very different.


People born with Down’s syndrome often lead happy, albeit usually shorter lives. They may suffer from learning difficulties to a varying degree plus can be more susceptible to other conditions. 


As the actress Sally Phillips, who has an 11 year old son with Down’s argued, if we were discussing a race of people, there would be no question of terminating a pregnancy.


This is an extremely difficult and highly personal decision, but I can’t help thinking that it is one that society needs to make. It is too easy to be carried along by the flow of medical opinion.


One possibility is to opt for screening for Edward’s and Patau’s syndromes alone.


Information on condition’s like Down’s syndrome needs to be given in a way that people can appreciate the full picture.  As Sally Phillips also said – no one with Downs has even been involved in the discussion of the ethics of these tests.


Hear the full radio clip [here].






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