FIRST-PERSON: A prenatal test with (mostly) deadly results

DALLAS (BP) -- A new type of test is being rolled out to detect genetic abnormalities in unborn babies. It examines traces of fetal DNA in the mother's bloodstream that predict the risk of a child being born with Down syndrome and other conditions, like Trisomy 18 and Edwards syndrome.

This test doesn't involve the six-inch needle and 1 percent risk of causing miscarriage that amniocentesis does. Sequenom Inc.'s website advertises its MaterniT21 test as "an alternative to traditional" testing methods, "non-invasive to you and your baby."

The tests, really screenings, have already been performed on tens of thousands of mothers and are being marketed aggressively by four companies. They carry another very real risk, though -- the significant risk of death for the unborn child.

The Wall Street Journal reports that false positives are popping up more frequently than expected, and in the "worst-case scenario, inaccurate test results could contribute to the abortion of healthy babies." And what if the baby is found to have Down syndrome or something else? The Journal makes it sound as though the most tragic outcome is the inadvertent choice to abort a healthy baby. But what of the abortion and death of those with Down syndrome or the other genetic abnormalities?

Is that not just as tragic?

Spokesmen for the companies marketing the screenings insist they are to be followed by ultrasounds or amniocentesis before presenting the patient with the choice to terminate the pregnancy. But they admit there's a lot of confusion out there. The Journal interviewed Athena Cherry, director of Stanford University Medical Center's cytogenetics lab who said "the message isn't driven home enough." She performed follow-up testing on six positive results for two severe conditions, four of which turned out to be false positives.

The Journal also reports that the tests appeal to women because they can be performed earlier, at about 10 weeks gestation, giving them more time to make the "difficult decisions."

Prenatal testing is recommended for women at higher risk of having babies with chromosomal abnormalities, including those over 35 years old. But with the availability of these new non-invasive tests, some experts are recommending these tests be offered to women of any age along with "appropriate counseling." Will these experts ever consider it appropriate to counsel a couple to bear a child that is expected to have genetic abnormalities?

Folks, insurance companies have started covering these screenings, which will likely become standard practice for pregnancies. They will be covered under the health care law. Not surprising that a national health system would seek to cull the ranks of the disabled to save money.

Of course, prenatal tests can detect conditions for which doctors then treat the baby in utero. Mostly, though, they inform the decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy. It's tragic, but in our individualistic, utilitarian culture, most of those decisions will bring the baby's death.


Penna Dexter is a conservative activist and frequent panelist on the "Point of View" syndicated radio program. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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