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Abortions of children with Down syndrome and serious disabilities have skyrocketed in Great Britain since 2011, after the introduction of new blood tests that allow the conditions to be more easily detected during pregnancy.
An investigation into figures published by the UK Department of Health reveals the number of abortions carried out because babies were found to have Down syndrome or other serious disabilities has increased by 34% in just three years since 2011, according to the UK’s Daily Mail.
Last year, nearly 3,100 women chose to end their pregnancies because of medical problems with their babies, compared with 2,300 in 2011.
Of the difference of 800 abortions, the biggest proportion was linked to Down’s [sic] syndrome, with 693 terminations last year compared with 512 in 2011. A further ten were pregnancies ended because the babies had a cleft palate—a treatable condition.
Experts say the rise is linked to the availability of new privately available £500 blood tests that screen for Down’s and other congenital abnormalities without putting the unborn child at risk.
Many expectant mothers decline an offer of an amniocentesis test—which involves passing a needle into the womb—because of the one-in-100 chance it will lead to a miscarriage, the newspaper noted. The new blood tests, which analyze samples of fetal DNA found in the mother’s blood, eliminate that risk.
Unless, of course, the unborn baby tests positive and parents feel they "cannot" deal with having a disabled child.
Jane Fisher, director of the charity Antenatal Results and Choices, told the Mail, "Non-invasive prenatal testing has undoubtedly made a difference to the abortion figures. Women tell us every day they are accessing the new blood tests privately, and this is likely to have led to a higher detection of chromosomal abnormalities and contributed to the rise in the number of terminations for these indications."
She clarified, though, that the new blood tests provide screening, not diagnosis. "So women found to be high-risk should have an amniocentesis to confirm any potential genetic abnormality," she said.
The blood tests have mainly been available privately in clinics across the UK for the past couple of years but could be available as standard throughout the National Health Service next year.
Dr Bryan Beattie, an NHS foetal medicine consultant in Wales, who also runs the Innermost Healthcare Clinic, which offers the private tests, said: ‘We’re seeing 50 to 60 women a week in our clinic alone.
‘We have a number of women where a structural abnormality or potential chromosomal problem has been detected at their scan and they don’t want an invasive test because of the miscarriage risk. Some, of course, end that pregnancy because of their results – but not all. Some are just happy to know what they’re facing….
Beattie raised an important point, though: with more and more screening tests available (the Register reported on an at-home urine test for Down screening), will this create a "slippery slope?"
"The real issue next, in around two or three years’ time, will be an ethical one—where do you stop? Do you screen for breast cancer genes, for Huntington’s—or taking it a step further, test for eye and hair color?" Beattie asked.
In the US, there has been debate about the percentage of pregnancies that end in abortion as a result of a diagnosis of Down or other disabilities. Some put the figure as high as 90%. A recently published study by Gert de Graaf, Frank Buckley and Brian Skotko in the American Journal of Medical Genetics shows that the actual number is considerably less.
"The authors have determined that the population of individuals living with Down syndrome is 30% lower than it would be if there was no prenatal diagnosis that results in abortion," says a report at the website of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation.
A British mother who set up a website about Down syndrome after her daughter was born with the condition has concerns about the test.
"I fear it will lead to a larger abortion rate of babies with Down’s," said Hayley Goleniowska of Downs Side Up. "In quieter moments I weep to think of what we could lose. Women need unbiased information—it’s not the test that worries me, it’s how it is implemented."