New Down Syndrome Test Triggers Abortion Worries

MaterniT21 sounds a bit like a maternity clothing line, but it's actually a new test that can reliably detect Down syndrome in a fetus. Developed by the California company Sequenom, the test checks fetal DNA present in the mother's blood to see whether the baby has the extra copy of chromosome 21 that causes Down syndrome.

Unlike current prenatal tests, which carry a small risk of fetal injury or miscarriage (since they require a sample of either amniotic fluid or placenta), MaterniT21 appears to be a much safer alternative. It can be administered as early as 10 weeks into the pregnancy—with an impressive accuracy rate of 99 percent.

The problem, according to some people, is that the new test could lead to more terminated pregnancies.


Advocates worry that if the test becomes widely available, the opportunity for earlier diagnosis may increase number of pregnancies terminated by women who have a Down syndrome pregnancy. According to studies, as many as 9 out of 10 pregnancies with a Down syndrome diagnosis end in abortion.

Not only are there a mess of ethical issues surrounding the possibility of a reduced incidence of Down syndrome, but a smaller community means fewer resources for those in need.

Experts say that results of the test should be accompanied by education and referrals to support groups so parents can make informed decisions, but some families feel that test results simply can't come with an accurate picture of what life would be like with a child who has Down syndrome.

In one survey of parents and guardians, 79 percent reported their outlook on life was more positive because of their child with Down syndrome.

I can totally understand the concern that the test may have an unwanted impact on the birthrate of Down syndrome babies, but it seems to me that any ethical quandaries raised by the test itself are far outweighed by the notion of restricting the test. After all, it's a safer way to get information that's already available via more invasive means, and it seems unthinkable to force women to get an amniocentesis when a simple blood test is possible.

MaterniT21 raises some serious issues about how important it is that education and information be offered to families who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis. Still, regardless of the individual choices families may make, a safer test should never be considered controversial. Every pregnancy comes with risk, and no test can assure us of the "ideal" outcome for our children, but we all have the right to learn about any serious medical issues as early as possible.

For many families, an early diagnosis will mean a better chance at providing their child with the best support they can. 

Do you think the new Down syndrome test is unethical in any way?

Image via Flickr/thirteenofclubs

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