Non invasive prenatal testing

I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent” which contained a very interesting report on a synod being hosted by the Church of England on the subject of non invasive prenatal testing and Downs. The report was candid and raised some interesting questions, some of the ramifications of which just seem to roll out like a ball of string in my mind.

To summarise, certain countries – I think Iceland and Denmark got a mention – use a form of non-invasive testing to screen for genetic abnormalities in foetuses, testing which is so prevalent that, in Iceland now, no children are born with Downs. It has been postulated that with wider use of such non invasive testing, genetic traits such as Downs might be screened out altogether from a population. What are the ethical ramifications?

Traditionally, testing for prenatal genetic abnormalities has often been invasive: the scary amniocentesis test carries its own risk of subsequent abortion, which tends to mean that mothers who have the amnio test are strongly advised to proceed with an abortion if test results indicate a tested-for anomaly.

Now, with the widespread use of non-invasive tests, the risk to the mother is nil, and so the pressure whether or not to proceed with a termination in the event of a positive test for a genetic anomaly becomes almost purely social. Non- invasive tests are great – and will doubtless be touted as a big step forward for the free mother lobby – but I doubt that freedom itself is so straightforward.

The risks shift the nature of maternal choice further from the medical sphere and plant it more firmly in the social sphere. I suspect that ‘freedom’ will move from the rights of the mother not to put herself at medical risk, to the right of the mother to do what is socially expected of her.

And, does it benefit society at large that all individuals should be the same? I personally am concerned that, because of the nature of medical advances, individuals of difference will, increasingly be tolerated only within social spheres that take a moral or political stance: Churches, or societies that embrace the totality of the human condition will probably be in a minority, although the gifts that individuals bring to such communities is immeasurable. And mothers will have to have the strength of Job to resist.

To be continued.

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