New genetic test brings prenatal eugenics one further step closer

By Dr. Peter Saunders

Editor’s note. Dr. Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organization with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members.

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Last August I blogged about a new pre-natal screening test that makes eliminating all people with genetic disease an achievable reality.

I said at the time that this test may mean that every pregnant woman will have a simple blood test at an early stage in pregnancy and offered an abortion if their baby carries any genes (including a female chromosome!) that they find undesirable.

Cell-free fetal DNA is DNA from the baby that has crossed the placenta into the mother’s blood. It makes up about 10% of all free DNA in the maternal blood and can now be examined to determine the baby’s sex and what genetic disorders it carries.

Today [Thursday] the BBC reports on new US research where a ‘blood sample from mum and saliva from dad’ were used to sequence the genome of an 18 week unborn baby using just this technology.

The doctors have said that the findings, reported in Science Translational Medicine, could eventually lead to foetuses being screened for more than 3,000 single-gene disorders through a single, non-invasive test.

The Abortion Act 1967 currently allows abortion up until birth where there is a ‘substantial risk’ or a ‘serious handicap’–so-called ground E –but this is currently interpreted very liberally indeed.

Last year 146 babies ground E abortions were carried out after 24 weeks, the accepted age of viability, after which there must be such a serious risk for an abortion to be legal if the mother is not in danger.

But, overall in 2011, 2,307 babies were aborted under ground E, including 512 with Down’s syndrome, 144 with spina bifida, 157 with a family history of heritable disorder and 4 with cleft lip and palate.

Between 2002 and 2011 there were 20,290 ground E abortions, the overwhelming majority of which were for conditions compatible with life outside the womb.

Of these, a total of 1,335 babies were aborted after 24 weeks.

The figures are a chilling testimony to a growing eugenic mindset in Britain, where babies with disabilities are eradicated before birth so as not to place a burden on families, society or the health service.

It is at the very heart of Christian teaching that human beings have value not because of any ‘intrinsic’ qualities they may possess, but for two main ‘extrinsic’ reasons. First, that they are made in the image of God for an eternal relationship with him, and second because God himself became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ and thereby bestowed unique dignity on the human race.

If we follow that view through to its logical conclusion it leads us to say that any human being, regardless of its age, appearance, degree of deformity or mental capacity, is worthy of the highest possible degree of protection, empathy, wonder and respect.

Our society’s increasing obsession with celebrity status, physical perfection and high intelligence fuels the view that the lives of people with disabilities or genetic diseases are somehow less worth living.

By contrast the Christian view is that the life of every human individual, regardless of its intelligence, beauty, state of health or degree of disability is infinitely precious. A just and caring society is one where the strong make sacrifices for the weak, or in the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).

Let’s recognise and resist the eugenic mindset. Our priorities should be to develop treatments and supportive measures for those with genetic disease along with support for their families; not to search them out and destroy them before birth.

Editor’s note. This appeared on Dr. Saunders’ blog.