Non-Invasive Prenatal Screening and “mad science”

By Eileen Haupt, Co-founder, KIDS (Keep Infants with Down Syndrome)

Editor’s note. October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. We have already begun running a series of stories leading up to and during the month of October, celebrating the lives of people with Down syndrome and their families.

Sally Phillips of “Bridget Jones” fame, has produced entitled a documentary, "A World Without Down Syndrome?" which will air on BBC.

Sally Phillips of “Bridget Jones” fame, has produced entitled a documentary, “A World Without Down Syndrome?” which will air on BBC.

The introduction of non-invasive prenatal screening (NIPS) tests to detect Down syndrome has caused a flurry of concern from Down syndrome advocacy groups and families. NIPS is based on new technology that can detect the baby’s placental cells in the pregnant mother’s blood, and have been touted as more accurate than existing blood tests.

In the United Kingdom, the NHS [National Health Service], the publicly funded national healthcare system, is considering offering NIPS for diagnosing Down syndrome. NIPS is currently available in the UK, but must be paid for privately.

The proposed offering in publicly funded NHS has spawned the aptly named Don’t Screen Us Out campaign among Down syndrome advocacy groups and families in the U.K. (See here and here.)

Sally Phillips of “Bridget Jones” fame, who has an 11-year-old son with Down syndrome, is one of the voices speaking out about the proposed NHS offering. So has gone so far as to suggest that there is a case to be made for banning screening tests for Down syndrome.

In early October, a documentary she produced entitled A World Without Down Syndrome? will air on BBC. From the video cuts I have viewed, it looks to be an entertaining, as well as informative, documentary, and I am looking forward to seeing it when it is made available after the broadcast in the U.K.

But why all the fuss about these new non-invasive maternal blood tests, which supporters claim is 99% accurate? After all, maternal blood tests have been used for decades to screen for certain factors in the pregnant mother’s blood that indicate a greater chance of carrying a baby with Down syndrome.

These new NIPS pose no health risks to the pregnant mother. They pose no health risks to her unborn child. In fact, it could be said (and it has been) that these more accurate screening tests are actually saving unborn lives, because fewer pregnant mothers need to undergo invasive diagnostic testing, such as amniocentesis and CVS [chorionic villus sampling], which carry a risk of miscarriage.

Here in the U.S., the National Down Syndrome Society has expressed concern that NIPS are not regulated by the FDA, that they are being used as definitive diagnostic tests, and that women are making “life-changing choices” based the results.

But what are those “life-changing choices?” Is it moving to a school district with better special education services? Is it lining up an early interventionist to get a head start on the child’s development?

No. This “life-changing choice” is abortion.

Pregnant mothers are aborting their unborn babies with Down syndrome based on the results of the NIPS. This is really nothing new; tragically, women have been aborting their babies with Down syndrome based on the results of prenatal tests for decades.

But the increased accuracy of the diagnosis, the argument (already prominent in Britain) that it is “cost effective” versus assisting a person with Down syndrome and/or their families, and the public-funding which signals societal approval, will inexorably lead to more and more abortions.

Many Down syndrome advocates steadfastly insist that they are pro-choice, yet at the same time regret that so many women make the “choice” to abort their baby with Down syndrome. We can’t really have it both ways.

In the late 1950s Dr. Jerome Lejeune discovered that Down syndrome was caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. He meant for his discovery to be used for good. He was horrified that his discovery was being used to develop methods of detecting Down syndrome in the womb for the purpose of eliminating these innocent lives.

Lejeune said “Medicine becomes mad science when it attacks the patient instead of fighting the disease. We must always be on the patient’s side, always.”

These new non-invasive prenatal tests can be used to be on the patient’s side. They can detect conditions that we can prepare for after birth, or perhaps even treat the baby while still in the womb. But as long as there is legalized abortion, they will be used for “mad science.”

October in the U.S. is celebrated as “Down Syndrome Awareness Month.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also designates October as “Respect Life Month.”

How fitting that these two issues share the same month as we raise awareness to elimination of babies with Down syndrome in the womb by abortion.