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New Test for Down Syndrome Could Increase Abortions, Stigma, Experts Warn

Samuel Forrest
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Urine sampling can be done at home, earlier in pregnancy

A new prenatal test for Down syndrome promises to be simpler and less expensive.

It could increase pressure on expectant parents to abort a child they think will be disabled, experts say. It could also add to the stigmatization of persons who have Down.

The new test, described in the journal Clinical Proteomics, can be conducted at home with a urine sample early in a mother’s pregnancy. It has been found to have a greater than 90% detection rate and can provide a result in around a minute, according to Britain’s ITV.

Those who receive a result indicating a higher risk of Down syndrome will be offered a further diagnostic test, such as amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling, to confirm results.

But Dr. Stephen Butler, chief scientific officer at MAP Diagnostics, which developed the test, told the Daily Mail that the procedure will “offer choice to women, and their partners, much earlier in pregnancy to enable difficult decisions to be made with confidence and without any additional pressures of time.”

MAP’s Ray Iles added that the company was trying to bring the test to as many women around the world as possible within the coming months.

“We understand the anxiety every parent faces not knowing whether their baby will be affected by this serious disability and this has driven us to persist with our research.

Iles said the test was far more affordable than another screening method, non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), which is currently only available in private hospitals in the UK.

David Prentice, vice president and research director with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, said that while there are “a few cases where it’s helpful to know” test results, such as being prepared at birth for special care, most tests are used for eugenic purposes.

“That’s the sad attitude behind these tests, to ‘screen out’ individuals considered less worthy,” said Prentice. The Charlotte Lozier Institute, according to its website, promotes "deeper public understanding of the value of human life, motherhood, and fatherhood, and to identify policies and practices that will protect life and serve both women’s health and family well-being."

Mark Bradford, president of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA, said that a December 2014 study conducted by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting indicated that non-invasive prenatal screening “is being used as diagnostic by some women resulting in decisions to abort without a confirming invasive test.”

“Logic would indicate that making a test for Down syndrome as easy and as inexpensive as a pregnancy test removes the insurance and cost factor, and also the role of a healthcare professional from the process of screening for fetal anomalies,” said Bradford, whose foundation is named for the geneticist who first identified the chromosomal nature of Down. “In some cases that could be a good thing, but I fear that in most it could result in an easy appointment for an early abortion shortly after the test is taken at eight weeks.”

Bradford added that continued development of such prenatal testing methods with Down as the primary target “only serves to reinforce a flawed perception of Down syndrome, i.e., that it is a horrible birth to be avoided at any cost.”

“It is foolish to think that those with Down syndrome don’t know they are targets,” he said, relating an anecdote of Jerome Lejeune comforting a young patient with Down who had seen a televised debate about loosening restrictions on abortion, with eliminating Down syndrome as the primary objective.

“He came running into Lejeune’s arms the next day begging him to save them because he knew that people were wanting to kill them,” Bradford said. “I felt like I had been punched in the stomach when I read the news of the development of this test. How much more are we going to have to endure before the medical community finally catches up to what families who have children with Down Syndrome know, that is, that our children are really not that much different than anyone else and we love them deeply.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.
 

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