Recent advances in DNA technology gives parents the ability to screen their unborn child for a specific disease, such as Down syndrome. However, knowing the results for an unborn baby also leaves the parents with the daunting responsibility of knowing what to do with those results. Along with this power come many ethical issues that leave many parents wondering if they really want to know their baby’s future.
Testing a fetus for Down syndrome has become an ethical debate because a prenatal screening that gives positive results for the disease leaves a woman with the choice of terminating the pregnancy. The use of this prenatal screening technology has become a very controversial issue since some argue that it gives the mother the power to choose a “perfect” baby by rejecting one that is considered “less-than-perfect” (Abraham, 2009). Others consider the diagnosis made with this technology to be necessary since it may prepare the parents for the fact that their child will be born with a major developmental disability and other health problems.
Down syndrome is a condition that results from three copies of chromosome 21 instead of just two. The mother has a greater chance of delivering a baby with Down syndrome as she increases with age. According to Goodenough, McGuire, & Wallace (2007), “a 30-year-old woman is twice as likely to give birth to a child with Down syndrome as is a 20-year-old woman.” By age 45 that risk rises dramatically to 45 times as likely. Besides the characteristic facial features, such as a flattened nose, up-ward slanting eyes, and a forward-protruding tongue, about 50% of babies born with Down syndrome also have heart defects (Goodenough et al., 2007).
Currently, there are two methods being used to determine if the fetus will develop Down syndrome. The first begins with a blood test and some ultra sounds to determine if the woman is at a “high risk of having a baby with genetic disorders and birth defects (Abraham, 2009). If the results come back positive, the next step known as amniocentesis (Abraham, 2009), involves an intrusive needle inserted into the uterus. Although the results are accurate 99% of the time, this method is risky since it has a miscarriage rate between “one and 200 to one in 1,000” (Abraham, 2009). The second method, chronic villus sampling, or CVS, can be performed earlier into the pregnancy, but is still invasive and has an even higher miscarriage rate ( Abraham, 2009); which is why scientist have developed a new non-evasive method set to come out summer of 2009.
Even though a prenatal screening may ease the parent’s mind during the pregnancy by eliminating genetic or birth defects, are they really prepared to deal with the results? If the results come back positive for Down syndrome the parents must then decide if they are willing to knowingly have a child with Down syndrome or if they want to terminate the pregnancy. Does anybody truly have the right so say that a person doesn’t have the right to live in this world just because they are not “perfect?” This downward slope of being able to pick and choose who is able to live based on their DNA is coming close to the goals from the movie GATTACA, where genetic engineering is used to produce children with the “perfect” DNA (Otto, 1997). Although the people with the “perfect” DNA were the only ones expected to succeed in the world, a man who was one of the so called “Degeneerates” proved them wrong.
Another argument against prenatal testing has to do with the accuracy of the results. Doug Wilson, head of a genetics committee in Canada stated that “even the best current screening methods result in a number of women being told they are carrying a baby with Down syndrome when they are not” (Abraham, 2009). He also stated that out of 399 pregnant women tested, 136 had received positive results for a high chance their baby would have Down syndrome and were recommended to have an amnio or CVS. However, only six of the women who had received a positive had a baby with Down syndrome, while 2% of the 136 women choose to have an abortion. 2% of women, rather than undergoing further testing that may have shown the initial results as a false positive, chose to have an abortion.
On the other hand, many people support prenatal screening because it gives them the chance to prepare for an unexpected birth. A newborn with Down syndrome is hard to detect with an untrained eye. The parents may think they had a perfectly healthy and normal baby, yet in reality their child may have been born with Down syndrome and an operation to unblock the digestive system may be needed (Goodenough et al., 2007). Being prepared before the birth not only helps the parents, it can also help the doctors in the delivery room so they can have the necessary equipment and specialists on hand.
Currently there is no national standard for prenatal screening. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, programs that offer prenatal screening vary in their protocol as well as in the algorithms used. This means that the false positive rate is different at each prenatal program because of the different sets of guidelines. If a national standard for prenatal screening were in place, the false positive rate would probably decrease; which would lead to fewer abortions.
Goodenough, J., McGuire, B., & Wallace R. (2007). Biology of humans: Concepts, applications, and issues. New Jersey: Pearson Education International.
Carolyn Abraham. (7 February 2009). Genetic health of the unborn: Simple test, complex questions. The Globe and Mail, A.1. Retrieved March 20, 2009, from ProQuest Central database. (Document ID: 1640178661).
Otto, Carla. (1997). Ethical Issues of Genetic Screening. Retrieved March 22, 2009, from http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/instruct/mcclean/plsc431/students/otto.html
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2007).