Blood Test Used to Detect Down Syndrome in Fetus Rolls Out – Are We Playing God?

By Emily Murray

When I came across this story today in the New York Times, I thought it most certainly brought up an interesting point. In fact, this relates to a conversation I had with a friend earlier this week. Now that we are reaching scientific breakthroughs that allow us to detect diseases and abnormalities in a fetus, what should we be doing with this information?

I see that on one side, the mother may decide early on in the pregnancy to terminate it as to avoid future suffering of both the child and the parents, but I also see this as slightly alarming since it begs the question “how can we be sure that even a life lived with a terminal or lifelong disease is a life not worth living?”

Apparently these same questions have been recently stirred up as a new test for Down Syndrome was recently introduced earlier this week and was announced to be available to the public in the next year. From a scientific and medical standpoint this is completely amazing. Now instead of using invasive and potentially dangerous tests to screen for Down Syndrome, expecting mothers will have the answer through a simple blood test. By taking this sample of the mother’s blood, doctors will know whether the fetus has Down Syndrome as early as 10 weeks into the pregnancy.

As it is becoming more and more common these days for women to have their first child in their late 30’s or even early 40’s, tests like these can be largely helpful. As women carry a pregnancy later in life their chance for having a Down Syndrome baby increases. According to a New York Times article on the subject, up until now it has been these high-risk mothers who do not want to go through the invasive testing for fear that they may miscarry. Now with the new blood test this may greatly change the screening process since it is not harmful for mother or fetus to be tested.

According to Dr. Brian G. Skotko (a source quoted in the New York Times article and also a specialist in the Children’s Hospital Boston Down Syndrome Program) “the number of babies born annually with Down syndrome in the United States declined 11 percent from 1989 to 2006. This was during a period when the number of such births would have been expected to increase by 42 percent because more women were putting off child-bearing until they were older, when the risk of an affected pregnancy increased.”

This naturally leads to the next question which I would imagine would have a different answer for every person you ask.

Is having a child with Down Syndrome something that should be avoided or accepted?

Of course there is no easy answer. It’s likely that if you ask a mother who currently has a son or daughter affected with Down Syndrome, which typically results in mild to moderate mental retardation, she will tell you that she loves her child anyway and that love has remained unaffected by the limitations of Down Syndrome.

Of course it could also be argued that a woman who already has a child affected by Down Syndrome was never able to participate in the brand new testing that will now be available for new moms to take part in. So would she have done it differently if she had the choice?

I merely present both sides of the topic as a woman who believes you can never know what you would decide unless you were the one in the doctor’s office hearing your options.

What are your thoughts? Is this a major breakthrough or a lack of value for life?