Scientists say that they have created a new test that will tell pregnant women whether they are carrying a child with Down’s Syndrome, without the risk or expense of previous tests. They say that in less than two years, the test could appear in clinical practice.
Previous surgical methods have been used to diagnose Down’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder which leads to learning difficulties, heart defects, and a greater risk of dementia and leukemia later in the life, but these cause about 1 in 100 women to miscarry, a significant risk. This would be non-invasive and risk-free, as well as inexpensive, making it available to far more pregnant women.
The question here, of course, is one that Care2 blogger Kristina Chew asked back in January: if a test is cheap and accessible, will Down’s Syndrome disappear? Studies show that the proportion of women deciding to terminate a pregnancy after a Down’s Syndrome diagnosis are consistently high, somewhere between 90 and 95 percent, despite the fact that in recent years, people have reported feeling as though there is more social support for raising children with the disorder.
The ethical questions are significant. The parents of disabled children tend to say that while their experience raising their child was challenging, their love for their child has far outweighed the difficulties. At the same time, however, making sure that children with Down’s Syndrome, which can range from mild to severe symptoms, have a positive, supported life does require a significant commitment on the part of the parents, both emotional and financial.
The stakes, therefore, are high. If parents or a mother finds out that their unborn child has Down’s Syndrome, they may not feel equipped to undertake such a challenge. At the same time, it flags obvious issues about what kind of human life is valuable, and whether it is moral to terminate a pregnancy because of a genetic disorder. I do believe that it is the parents’ right to decide whether they want to raise a child with Down’s Syndrome, though, so this test is welcome progress.
The test won’t be available for a while, so there will be time to debate its ethics. But it’s important that we raise these questions, and make sure that pregnant women and their partners are thinking about them, especially if they decide to take advantage of the new technologies.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.